Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Kathleen Jamie poem and trees and ewes at Smeaton Gardens

February 5, 2019

In the latest Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Winter 2018), there is a poem from the well known poet Kathleen Jamie. It is from her latest book Selected Poems and is entitled Skeins O Geeese – a poem written in Scots. It begins

Skeins of geese write a word / across the sky. A word / struck lik a gong / afore I was born. / The sky moves like cattle, lowin’.

I found two interesting aspects of this poem. Firstly, the dramatic images and secondly, that it reads as well in English as it does in Scots, although the poet herself (and others) may not agree, of course. We often get skeins of geese above us in the autumn (going south) and in the spring (going north) and it is a wonderful sight – a moving V across the sky. I had never thought of the onward skein as words being written in the sky, but I do like the image. The second image here – of the sky moving like lowing cattle – is also eyebrow raising and the next time you see clouds slowly moving across the sky, you might think of cattle. The poem is not just about the sky. On the ground,

Wire twists lik archaic script/ roon a gate. The barbs / sign tae the wind as though / it was deef. The word whustles / ower high for ma senses. Awa.

Only a poet as perceptive and lyrical as Jamie could see twisted wire on a farm gate as archaic script, but it is an apt simile if you picture hieroglyphics on a stone. The image of the wire using sign language to the deaf wind is also striking and the poet accepts that, as a mere human, she cannot hear the words of the wire. Again, if you read this in English, it loses none of its effect. Whustles or Whistles? Is one better than the other? Jamie obviously prefers the Scots. You can read the whole poem, as published in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement here.

New book by Kathleen Jamie (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Another cold winter’s day but with a brilliant blue sky and we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and walked up to Smeaton Gardens (good photos). Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a fascination with trees and on this walk up to the garden centre, there are a variety of kinds of trees, tree shapes and tree silhouettes. The first tree below is an evergreen but despite searching for a similar tree, I do not know what type of tree it is, but it could be a Scots pine. It stands out in the winter as most of the other trees are bare. This tree is obviously quite old as it has grown separate trunks above the base. It is an untidy looking tree, with its floppy branches and gaps everywhere and yet it stands in its own magnificence and looks warmer than its naked neighbours.

Evergreen tree at Smeaton Gardens

The second tree is a polar opposite to the first one. This tree looks as if it has suffered a lightning strike to its top and an electric shock to its branches, which although static, appear to be waving about. In the background, to the bottom left, North Berwick Law (good photos) can be seen above the distant forest.

Damaged tree at Smeaton Gardens

As you enter the grounds of Smeaton Gardens, there is a sign saying “Pregnant ewes” and warning dog owners to keep their beasts on a lead. We saw the ewes at the top of the drive. These are no ordinary ewes and the photo below shows their thick woollen coats and muscular looking bodies. The ewes were feeding amongst the horse jumping arena near the garden centre and you half expected to see one or more of them leap over one of the obstacles on the course.

Ewes amongst the horse jumps at Smeaton Gardens

On closer inspection (photo below), some of the ewes appeared to be small brown bears which had stolen in to the ewes’ enclosure to feed on the lush looking grass. The ewes were at first curious and came near us but, maybe working out that we were not going to provide them with extra food, they meandered off, looking none too pleased at our potential intrusion. It’s now February, so lambing cannot be far off for these expectant mothers.

Brown bear looking ewes at Smeaton Gardens
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James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” and countryside frost

January 29, 2019

I have just finished reading Robicheaux by the noted US author James Lee Burke. This book is classified as a crime novel and indeed, there is much crime and many criminals to be found in the book, but Burke is such a lyrical writer, especially when describing the bayou settings in the novel, that it should be a novel first and a crime novel second. The titular hero Dave Robicheaux, has featured in many of Burke’s novel and is now semi-retired – officially – but he becomes fully involved in an investigation of a series of murders which involve police on the take, corrupt politicians, gangsters and a terrifying psychopath. Burke has always been a social commentator in his novels, although he never preaches. The book highlights the social tensions in US society between rich and poor, black and white, moral and amoral. One of the key characters in the book is Jimmy Nightingale, a populist politician who plays on the racist and anti-immigrant prejudices of many of his constituents, and is running for the senate, with hopes of higher office. Sounds familiar.

Robicheaux himself is a complex character, who is a recovering and occasionally lapsing alcoholic and Vietnam veteran. His fight is against criminals and the corrupt, but also against himself and his sometimes violent tendencies. His best pal is Clete Purcel, another complicated man whose view is that injustice is best served via violence against the perpetrators. Robicheaux tries to help Purcel and Purcel tries to keep his friend sober. Burke’s dialogue is one of his great strengths and it can be humorous. The pair meet in a bar and it looks like Purcel may be on a bender. Robicheaux asks “Why not put your brain in a jar and give it to a medical school”. The reply is “I did that five years ago. They gave it back”.

This is a mainly male-dominated novel but some of the female characters are well developed, such as Robicheaux’s female boss. Burke has always been a superb story teller and he keeps a complex plot moving and provides the reader with intriguing possibilities as to who might be behind the crime wave that is emerging in the county. Another character is the bayou itself and Burke has many poetic descriptions of the environment in which Robicheaux has his home. For example: “The coastline was a heartbreaking green inside the mist. Flying fish broke from the bay’s surface and sailed above the water …. The salt spray breaking on my bow was cold and fresh and smelled of resilience”. Reading Burke’s novel, you get a sense of the beauty and the danger (e.g. crocodiles) of the natural world, as well as the human world. This is a pacy thriller – but much more than that.

James Lee Burke’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

We now go from the heat and humidity of the Louisiana bayou to the cold and frost (but beautiful blue skies) of south east Scotland. On a recent Sunday morning, we drove 2 miles up country and parked the car at Oswald Dean, locally known as Oasie Dean and went on a circular walk. There was a heavy frost at our house and it was even thicker up the country, but there is a startlingly bright beauty about a frosted scene, such as this one, looking over the bridge at Oasie Dean. The trees, bushes and grass are all whitened and make the blue of the burn more outstanding than normal. The burn interrupts the imposed stillness of its surroundings.

Frosted meadow at Oswald Dean near Dunbar

Just across the road, on the wall above the neighbouring field, I spotted the frozen ivy leaves. The leaves and grass on this side of the wall remained white and stiff, while the leaves at the top and the yellow moss on the right of the photo below, had been restored to suppleness by the sun.

Frosted ivy and sun restored moss on the wall at Oswald Dean

On closer inspection (photo below), the ivy leaves appeared to be delicately dusted with frost, which served not to conceal, but to emphasise the delicate patterns of the veins on the leaves. Some were completely iced over and prickly-looking, while others were only fringed by ice and displayed what looked like a huge river, with tributaries on either side.

Frosted ivy leaves at Oswald Dean

We continued our walk up past The Doonery, now a collection of houses but formerly a farm, with an impressive chimney. Looking back at the Doonery (photo below) the edge of the path which was sheltered from the sun, was still frost-bound. I like the long straight lines in the photo, leading your eye to the bare trees and the former farm buildings.

Frosty pathside leading to the Doonery

Further up, this path has some magnificent trees which glowed in the bright blue winter sunlight. In the photo below, you can see the shadows cast by the trees. It looks like a man or woman is reaching up to pick something off the branches. The tress maybe leafless in January but they still impress with their sturdiness and shining trunks. Above the darker blue sea in the background, the sky goes from pale to a similar dark blue.

Trees on the path up to Doon Hill cast interesting shadows

We came back down the hill via Spott Farm which now appears to be open to walkers and runners, having been closed off for a number of years. The farm has many solid sandstone buildings and as you turn one corner, you see the farm clock (photo below), with its small campanile above. The roof had been partly in the sun, but the frost was still thick on the unwarmed sections.

We were walking down the driveway from the main Spott House building, when 3 deer leapt the fence to our right and bounced across the road into the next field. Seeing deer dash away from you, with their white rumps disappearing into the field, is always a pleasure to see. I managed to catch one of the deer (photo below) as it crossed the tree-lined driveway and the still frosted grass. Again, the trees cast shadows which left sunny rectangles on the road and the grass. A fine end to a very enjoyable walk.

A deer crosses over the road up to Spott House

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey and Karangahake Gorge Walk

December 17, 2018

There are very few books of poetry that make you feel uncomfortable while reading them. You admire the versatility of the poet, the striking imagery and the immaculate construction of the book, but the content is disturbing. Ellen Hinsey‘s The Illegal Age (review) is one of the these books. The subject of the book is totalitarianism across the world and what she refers to as “political illegality” as seen, many would argue, in regimes such as that in Turkey today. So this is not poetry for the faint-hearted and it may be seen as very different from lyrical poetry dealing with nature for example. On the other hand, it is not so different, in that the poet is using imagery to allow us to examine the subject of the poems. The book is highly structured, with 3 sections, each with 7 sub-sections and the reviewer above suggest that the poet may be trying to replicate the bureaucratic structures of oppressive regimes – something I had not thought about.

The first section beings “Nothing happens quickly; each day weighs on the next -/ Until the instant comes -” when someone walking “along/ The foggy lane in innocence”  disappears. This suggests the gradualism of oppression. Another section deals with The Inconceivable which again creeps up on society until it is too late. This reminded me of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when most people would have seen the consequent rise of Nazism as inconceivable at the time. Hinsey then writes “.. the Inconceivable seeps forward, mastering territory with the unpredictable sleight of a storm’s stealth” – a frightening but beautiful image. In The Denunciation, subtitled East Germany 1979, a woman reflects on her husband/lover’s betrayal, asking when it began e.g. “when you sat together by the braille of a restless lake” or when he kissed her “by the prying iridescent eye of the butterfly”. Both these images – of the lake and the butterfly – are very imaginative and in another context would be uplifting and Hinsey does this throughout the book, to great effect. 

This will not be the most comfortable read of you life, but it does stress how important it is to record the rise of oppression and to remember it. Hinsey’s imagery will stay with you for a long time. 

Ellen Hinsey’s powerful book of poems (Click on all captions to enlarge the images)

On our trip to New Zealand, our niece took us to Karangahake Gorge (good photos) which is the site of an old gold mine. There are a number of different walks and we chose one of the longer ones which took us to the top of the hill which housed the mine. There are many interesting boards along the way and the one at the start of the walk (below) gives you an insight into what you might be encountering along the way. 

Karangahake Gorge in New Zealand’s North Island

It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gold mining was undertaken by large British companies at Karangahake and there is a good history here. As you go up the mount, you come across the remains of the mining infrastructure and equipment. Working in these gold mines was a hazardous occupation, as cyanide was widely used to extract the gold. The information board below shows some of the machinery used to crush the stone and then to mix the ore with cyanide. The ore/cyanide mix was made into bullion and on the bottom right, you can see a photo of a man pouring the molten liquid into a barrow. Health and safety regulations were unheard of in those days and other boards told of the fatalities that occurred in the mines. 

The use of cyanide in gold mining at Karangahake Gorge

As you climb to the top of the Mount Karangahake you pass many of the railway lines used to transport the stone down to the processing plant near the river. You also go through dark tunnels (phone torches needed) and you get the feeling of how claustrophobic it must have been in many parts of the mine. The walk is steep in parts and tricky in others but it is worth climbing to near the summit to get the views down to the river, as in the photo below. 

View from one of the lookouts down to the river at the Karangahake Gorge

One of the most fascinating features of this walk was the variety of ferns which we encountered along the way. The ferns themselves were of a multiplicity of greens and very attractive in themselves. What was more striking were the fronds which emerged from the ferns. The photo below shows the fronds emerging from a silver fern  and the stem is called a koru. 

Silver fern with fronds emerging from the korus

A close-up view (below) shows the delicacy of the frond which looks as if it could have been knitted or woven and the design might be used as the figurehead of a walking stick. With its delicate hairs on display, it also resembles what might be a curled up millipede, waiting to strike the next unassuming insect. This is nature as sculpture and a strikingly beautiful example of it. 

Silver fern frond in Karangahake Gorge

The Karangahake Gorge/Mount walk is an exhilarating one from start to finish and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Near the end of the walk, I took this video at the side of the river.

Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders and Mount Maunganui

December 10, 2018

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black  (good video) is the 6th book in the 1950s Dublin-based series featuring the clever but self-doubting pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe and his detective ally Hackett. Like the other Quirke novels, this may be classified as a crime novel, but this is a very well written novel, with a superb sense of place, an engaging plot and excellent characterisation, which has a crime as its centre. Benjamin Black is the pen name of Booker prize-winning author John Banville and this shows in some of the lyrical phrases which Black uses in the book to very good effect. You don’t read Benjamin Black for a page-turning potboiler, but you do read him for a story which will intrigue you as to which way it will turn. You also read him for his engaging characters, particularly Quirke who is often troubled by thoughts of his school days when he was abused by Catholic priests. In this novel, Black also fleshes out the character of his daughter Phoebe, whose journalist friend Jimmy Minor has been beaten to death and dumped in the Dublin canal. Quirke and Hackett set out to identify the killer(s) and there is a gradual build up to a satisfactory conclusion for the reader – no spoilers here. 

Black – like Banville – has some outstanding phrases in the book which stand out in the memory e.g. “In the fireplace, a dolmen of turf logs was smouldering sullenly”. A dolmen? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ” a group of stones consisting of one large flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times “. Once you know the meaning, Black’s imagery is even more powerful. In describing Sally, Jimmy Minor’s sister, Black writes “Her hair shone like coils of dark copper”. Another powerful simile – “In Baggot Street, the trees shivered and shook like racehorses waiting for the off”. This is an impactful book in many ways and as the plot develops, more social issues in Ireland emerge and become part of the story. If you like well-written, well-plotted and sometimes drolly humorous novel, then this is definitely for you and it would make a great festive season gift. 

The 6th book in the Quirke series (Click on all captions  to enlarge photos)

On our trip to New Zealand, we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Tauranga (good photos).  Tauranga has a huge harbour with extensive docks which regularly house cruise liners and large container ships, such as the one below, heading for the harbour.

Container ship heading towards Tauranga harbour.

Mount Maunganui  lies on the other side of the harbour and is described as a “holiday paradise”. It has a beautiful stretch of beach and on a sunny summer’s day, with the white waves easing themselves ashore from a deep blue sea, you can see why. Here is the beach with the Mount at the end. 

Mount Maunganui beach and The Mount.

Originally a separate village from Tauranga, “The Mount” as local refer to it, is called after Mauoa which is the remaining top of an extinct volcano. You can walk up and over the Mount or around it and the 360 degree views are spectacular from the top, from where you can see the harbour,  Motuotau (Rabbit Island) (good photos), out to the ocean and along the beach. Below is a photo taken from the top of The Mount and looking over Mount Maunganui and the beach. It is quite a strenuous walk to the top of The Mount but we did it in 30 min as we are pretty fit. The track is quite rough in parts and there are some very steep inclines. So it is a good workout as well a rewarding walk, given the views from the top. 

View over Mount Maunganui beach 

There is also an excellent walking track around the base of The Mount. It is a much easier walk but it gives you time to appreciate the surroundings more – the trees, the sheep and the vegetation. I mentioned the many tankers going into Tauranga Harbour as well as the cruise liners. On our last visit in 2011, we were walking around The Mount when we were passed by this huge liner. You can see the size of the vessel by looking at the people on the track. We had seen this same cruise liner docked at Circular Bay in Sydney just a few days earlier. 

Cruise liner heading for Tauranga Harbour

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

I have just finished reading Donal Ryan‘s excellent novel All We Shall Know. It has a dramatic opening – “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I’m thirty three. I was his teacher”. The book’s chapters follow the weeks of the pregnancy – 12 to 39 and introduce some very interesting characters. The narrator is Melody Shee – a troubled woman and at the start of  the novel, I thought this might end up being a misery lit novel as Melody is depressed and angry. This does not last however and although we do hear about Melody’s failed marriage, there are incidents from her childhood and  school days. Melody then meets Mary, a traveller girl who seeks refuge with Melody from her family. Mary is barely literate but is lively and has a sharp wit. Another key character in the novel is Melody’s father, who supports her through thick and thin. He is a charming, quiet man and a devout Catholic. He also has some Irish phrases that many will not have come across before. When Melody visits, he says “You’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring”. This reminded me of the Robert Burns song “You’re welcome Willie Stewart” which has the lines “There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May, That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!”. Here is Eddi Reader singing that song.

Ryan is an often poetic writer – “As she turned away again and I admired the sway of her, the queenly straightness of her back, the sceptred sureness of her step”. He also gives an insight into the culture of the travellers in Ireland – their extended family ties, their  disrepute (often undeserved) in the general community, and their feuds, in one of which Melody and Mary become involved. The ending is plausible but not convincing, whereas the rest of the book is well plotted and full of well-developed characters. Ryan manages to capture the Irish humour with some captivating dialogue, but he never lapses into cliches. I will be reading more of Ryan’s work in the future and I encourage you to do so as well.

Donal Ryan’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the UK, the clocks have now gone back and it is now dark by 6pm and much colder, although this does not stop us getting rugged up, as the Australians say, and going for a walk after our evening meal under a bright, starry sky. Just before the time change, we had one brilliant sunset which turned the partly cloudy sky into a stunning array of pink. This photo  shows the still blue sky scattered with pink-ribbed clouds, in contrast to the dark landscape of the town, with scaffolding on the church at the bottom left, while the sea at the bottom right is also turning pink. The sky changed as you watched it, as the light faded. What I like about this photo is that the clouds appear to be moving upwards – away from the town, as if they had been released into the sky from a canon.

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Autumnal sky above Dunbar

In this photo, you can see more of the reflection of the pinks clouds on the sea  and the dramatic swirl of the cloud above the town, which is tiny in comparison. I also like the variety of colours in the sky – the different blues, reds and pinks.

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

In the final photo of the sky only, the sky was darkening and there is quite a contrast between the left and right hand sides of the photo, as it was still quite light in the west but as your eyes went east over the sea, the light was in shorter supply, although this does not diminish the stunning patterns made by the clouds.

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar

 

 

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

Carey novel

Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.

The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

Bernard MacLaverty’s “Midwinter Break” and Scottish Birds’ photos

July 10, 2018

The literary output of the author Bernard MacLaverty stretches over many years and has always been of the highest quality. For MacLaverty fans, a 16 year wait for a new novel is a long time to wait but his new book Midwinter Break is certainly worth waiting for. It should be noted that MacLaverty has produced superb books of short stories in between the novels. This is a book that can be read and appreciated by readers of any age, but it will be particularly poignant to older – but definitely not old – readers in their 60s. The protagonists of the book are Stella and Gerry, who have been married for many years and are spending a weekend in Amsterdam in the winter. The couple live in Edinburgh but originate from Northern Ireland, where they lived during the Troubles. In a number of flashbacks, MacLaverty brilliantly presents key moments in their lives, such as  their early romance and Stella’s trauma and Gerry’s visits to the hospital. In Amsterdam, Stella is seeking solace in her life as she feels unaccomplished. She considers joining a group of women who share her religious faith, but this would mean leaving Gerry.

A key feature of the book is Gerry’s love of – and struggle with – alcohol. MacLaverty cleverly – and often humorously – shows how Gerry tries to hide his whisky drinking from Stella, but he also writes about how much pleasure Gerry gains from his first dram, then his second and then – what the hell? – his third. Of course, the hungover Gerry regrets his drinking, but not for long. There is a superbly written confrontation between Stella and Gerry about his drinking near the end of the novel. MacLaverty writes in detail about the couple’s daily habits and makes this intriguing to the reader. The novelist’s ear for conversation is sharp and the dialogue between the couple is utterly convincing.

MacLaverty also has his two protagonists referring to literature and Stella recalls Thomas Hardy’s poem on snow, following a storm in Amsterdam. The poem begins

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

The last line above is particularly observant – how snow takes away some of the noise we normally hear. It is one of the best novels I’ve read recently – buy it and you will not be disappointed.

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel. (Click on all photos to enlarge)

 

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, the front cover (below) shows a high-flying and imperious-looking glaucous gull, taken by Iain Leach. It has the equally imperious Latin name of Larus Hyperboreus. I had to look up glaucous which means having a “dull, greyish-green or blue colour” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It is by no means a pretty bird but its magnificent wing span has a multi-patterned elegance.

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

On the back cover, an extraordinary photo of a raven (Corvus Corax), taken by Jim Smith. In the notes above the photo (see below), Smith writes that the raven flew down to pick up a piece of bread on the ground, but “It would then rise up higher in the thermals, before flipping on to his back and floating back down”. This appears to me like a raven having fun and laughing at the world, in a look-at-me pose. Note the sharpness of the beak and the feet, appropriate for this often aggressive carnivore. Who would have thought that you might see a raven doing the Fosbury Flop?

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

A more gentle and much more colourful bird can be seen in the photo (see below) by Harry Scott, which featured in an article by R Craig and T Dougall on siskins in a small garden. The siskin (Carduelis Spinus) is a resident bird across the UK but particularly in Scotland. You can see a small flock feeding here. This is a very colourful little bird, with its range of blues and yellows across its body. As it clings to the feeder, its body is compact, with the wing and tail feathers neatly tucked in, but ready for flight at any second. The successive layers of feathers have an abstract look to them and resemble layers of stone that you see on beaches. You can hear more about the siskin and its call in this Tweet of the Day from Radio 4.

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Siskin by Harry Scott