Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

The Palacio da Bolsa and Joseph O’Connor’s Inishowen

November 29, 2022

One of the best visits we made while in Porto was to the Palacio da Bolsa (good photos). This magnificent building dates back to 1842 when it was built as a stock exchange by Porto merchants, on the site of a former convent, which was burned down during the siege of Porto ten years later. You pass the palace as you walk uphill – apart from along the river, you are always walking up or down hill in this city, so it is not for the unfit – towards the the city centre. The impressive exterior of the palace is best seen from the park across the road. The photo below shows the extent of the building with its four sturdy columns, multiple windows with small balconies and impressive clock tower. The date of 1834 represents the date when the original building was started. In all, the building took 70 years to complete in its final version.

The entrance to the Palacio da Bolsa

You can only enter the palace by buying a ticket for an organised tour, but it certainly worth every euro cent because of the quality on show as you are taken from one grand room to another by the very informative guide. While waiting for the guide, you are shown into a vast hall (1st photo below) with its beautiful balcony, ornate windows and doors and paintings representing the various merchant trades and emblems of Porto. All this below a stunning glass skylight. This hall, known as the Pátio das Nações, was the original trading floor. When you are looking up and around the walls, you are standing on colourful geometric floor (2nd photo below) with its circular patterns and an elegant and very graceful symmetrical centrepiece.

Entrance hall in the Palacio da Bolsa (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Geometric floor in the Palacio

There are two rooms, also highly decorated with sculptures, paintings and exquisite furniture on the tour and again, the standout feature is the floor. The photo below shows the mesmerising patterns on the floor in this grand room. At the start, you see a beautifully crafted pine floor, with light squares bordered by darker wood. If you look away and then look back again, you see a different floor, as this time it looks as if it is created in 3-D. As you walk through the room, the patterns constantly change. There are many paintings in the Palacio but these floors are works of art in themselves.

Eye-catching floor in the Palacio

The last room you visit is the one worth waiting for. This site (good photos) tells us that “The pièce de résistance of the Palácio da Bolsa is the Salão Árabe (Arab Hall) by architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves de Sousa, who was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain”. The hall was restored again in 2009-2010. The style is faux Arabian and you can see in the first photo below how the designer completely embraced the Moorish forms on the walls, the pillars and the ceiling. Note also the highly decorated pillars, with a different design at each stage going from the floor upwards. The floor is also very impressive and the site above adds “As in the rest of the building, here too, the floor is made from the finest woods such as mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, rosewood and maple”. The second photo shows the ceiling’s symmetrical, interweaving patterns and, like other similar North African styles, it reminds me of Aboriginal art in Australia.

The Arab Hall in the Palacio
Intricate ceiling in the Palacio

I took this video as a reminder of our visit to this fabulous room, which was used for concerts and balls. Imagine dancing in this luxurious space in your tuxedo or evening dress after a grand dinner and, of course, some superior local port.

I recently finished Joseph O’Connor‘s novel Inishowen (review). The novel was published in 2000 and is thus one of O’Connor’s earlier novels. I think that if he was writing this novel today, O’Connor would do some serious editing because, while there is superb dialogue and not a little humour in the parts set in Ireland, the parts of the story set in the USA are less convincing. Inspector Martin Aitken has problems at work and at home, as he is seen as a rogue detective at work and his drinking has led to his divorce from his wife. Eileen Donnelly is an American woman who is trying to find her birth mother and, by contacting nu ns in Ireland, she finds out that her mother – remarried with children – is in the village of Inishowen. Eileen also has a dark secret that his not revealed until midway through the book. Aitken first comes across Donnelly when she passes out on a Dublin street. The two make a trip to Inishowen later in the book. There are some fine and funny set pieces between Aitken and his police colleagues and O’Connor gives us an insight into Dublin city as well as the Irish countryside. There is an ongoing plot but I felt that O’Connor complicated the story near the end of the book. Despite this, he is an accomplished novelist and a great storyteller and if you accept the flaws in some parts of the book, you will find this an intriguing and enjoyable tale, which I highly recommend.

Autumn comes to East Lothian

November 5, 2022

We are now into November and this week, I have been planting a variety of Spring bulbs into the pots, now devoid of their resplendent summer flowers. Autumn is here and we are into the 3rd month of this season already. The clocks have gone back an hour and it is dark at 5pm. The photo below shows a beautifully dark maple tree in the gardens at Spott House, on our walk and often featured here on the blog. In Clive James poem Japanese Maple, he writes “My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new./ Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame”. James sensed that he was nearing the end of his life and he added, poignantly “What I must do/ Is live to see that”. In the photo, the maple tree stands out, even if it is in shadow, against the greenery of the grass and nearby trees, the pale sandstone of the house, and the blue of the pond, the sea and the sky beyond. The shadow at the bottom left is cast by a nearby building which has a brewery-like chimney pot on its roof.

Spott House in the sunshine and shadows (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back from the house, we pass one of the driveways up to the house itself. The photo below shows the leaf-laden driveway, with many more leaves to come. In Emily Emily Brontë’s poem Fall, Leaves, Fall, she writes “Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;/ Lengthen night and shorten day;/ Every leaf speaks bliss to me/ Fluttering from the autumn tree”. In this photo, there is certainly a kind of bliss, with the yellowing leaves on the ground, the evergreen bushes to the left and right and the trees, some of which are deciduous, in the sunshine beyond the path. There was little wind on the day, so there was a calmness about this scene, which can be wild, windy and noisy on some autumn afternoons.

The side driveway up to Spott House

Walking back down the driveway, the view is one which can be appreciated at all times of the year. The trees on both sides of this avenue still have their leaves but those they retain are changing colour, from green to yellow or russet. While the trees change shape and colour throughout the year, the view in the distance, to North Berwick Law (good photos) is constant. The brown fields you see below The Law ( as it is known locally) have recently been ploughed but will soon turn to a brilliant green (on sunny days) as the Spring wheat emerges. This was late afternoon, so a perfect time to catch the multiple shadows which stretch across the roadway from one grass verge to the other, with patches of white sunlight seemingly randomly scattered amongst them. This is one of these vistas that, no matter how often you see it, you have to stop walking and just take in the beauty of it.

Another autumnal scenario can be found at the Knowes Farm Bridge, also featured more than once on the blog e.g. here. The recent rain has greatly increased the flow of water in the River Tyne at the bridge and the water was hurriedly hastening onwards towards, eventually, the sea. The photo below shows the river from the side with the fading grasses and young trees. This is a crossing but a dangerous one on a day like this and you can see the exit point in the left middle of the photo. Once across the bridge – to the right of the photo – you can walk behind the trees on the far bank and follow the river on an often muddy track all the way to Preston Mill (good photos). The water is calm to the left and then hits some rocks to form a rushing, white-water gallop, before settling down again as it goes under the bridge.

Looking from the bridge – photo below – at this time of year, you see the river below through the berried branches of the hawthorn tree. To the left of the river, there are fields where the spring wheat is just emerging and bringing a new, startlingly bright green and signs of new growth in this season of decay. John Clare delighted in this time of year in his poem Autumn – “I love the fitfull gusts that shakes/ The casement all the day/ And from the mossy elm tree takes/ The faded leaf away/ Twirling it by the window-pane/ With thousand others down the lane”. No gusts on this day but there are times when a gale blows and you have to hang on to the side of the bridge to keep upright.

River Tyne and autumnal berries

I took this video of the river, so look and listen and enjoy the energetic but peaceful sound the water – no commentary needed.

One of the late blooming bushes to be seen up the country lane from the bridge is the holly. The photo below shows the prolific amount of berries on this bush, which forms part of the hedgerow at the side of the fields to your left and right as you walk up the lane to the road leading to East Linton (good photos) to your left and Tyninghame (good photos) to your right. The holly is usually associated with winter but autumn brings vibrant displays like this, but only on some bushes. Further down the lane there is a large holly bush, but it remains a thorny green, deprived of solid red berries. So, if you look around on your autumnal walk, you see the last of the leaves falling and dying – but later feeding the ground as they rot, but also the recent growth in the fields and on the holly bush. It may be colder now but, in some ways, autumn is the season of colour, perhaps in a more subtle manner than the gaudy summer, but no less beautiful.

Holly bush near the Knowes Farm

Pease Bay walk and Grahame Green’s Brighton Rock

September 5, 2022

It is well over two years since we last visited Pease Bay (good photos) which is 9 miles along the coast going south from Dunbar. As it was very busy Sunday afternoon, we had to park on the hill overlooking the holiday park. We walked along the wide stretch of beach in front of the array of mobile homes. The tide was far out and there were a couple of hopeful surfers near the shore, but that day the sea was flat calm. This is a very popular surfing area and you can see from these photos that when the surf is high, the surfers, body boarders and canoeists flock to this spot. This photo shows the beach we walked along when the tide is in. When the tide is out, you can walk past the rocks on to another big beach – a USA visitor we took here many years ago said we could be in California – which ends with the layered cliff in the photo below. As you cast your eye across the cliff face, you see the very attractive sandstone rock shining in pink. Many of the houses in Dunbar, including our previous house, which you can see with the red door on this Google street map , were built with this type of sandstone which was sources from local quarries.

Cliff at Pease Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back to the first beach, I could see that, since we last visited, there had been some coastal erosion – see photo below. In some ways, this is what might be seen as a superb piece of natural sculpture, with the huge rocks seemingly carved out of the hillside and placed in a structured group to provide a visual delight to the eye. These massive boulders look as if they might have been hewn out of the rockface to provide solid material to build a castle or even a pyramid. The truth of course is less attractive, in that climate change is producing more extreme weather e.g. Storm Arwen (video) last November, and rising seas and stronger winds leave coasts such as that at Pease Bay exposed and vulnerable. There has been coastal erosion for millennia but the rate of erosion has increased rapidly in recent years. The rocks remain, even in their fallen state, very attractive to look at, with their multiplicity of patterns and subtle shades of yellow and grey.

Coastal erosion at Pease Bay

Just around the corner from these rocks, you come to a small cave with the most stunning and colourful strata that you will find anywhere. The photo below – enlarge for best effect – shows this graceful and elegant display of colours, lines and streaks of what look like daubs of paint. I am always reminded of Aboriginal paintings when I see these rocks and I feel that a native artist from outback Australia could add dots and curves to these rocks and produce an incredible work of art, like the one here by Clementine Ecila. On a more prosaic note, the bottom half resembles a slice of layered cake, with a strawberry filling. The more you look at this picture, the more patterns you see.

Strata at Pease Bay

Adjoining the above strata, was another piece of natural art, this time resembling a surrealist painting more than anything else. The rock looks less formally stratified and green algae/seaweed has started to form on the curved rock, with a plethora of shapes e.g. the long dinosaur-looking head and body near the centre of the photo. The white surrounding the pink shapes highlight this seemingly random array of mythical creatures depicted here, not by a human but by the effects of sea and wind. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see what looked like to me an elongated shark, showing off off its vicious, flesh tearing teeth to foe and prey alike. This petrified creature is lying on the sand and I felt that it would well swim away when the tide came in and covered the pock-marked sand. The cliché about nature being wonderful certainly applies here.

Fascinating rocks at Pease Bay

I picked up a copy of Grahame Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock (review) in a second hand bookshop, neatly called The Reading Room, in Haddington, the next town west of Dunbar. The book was published in 1938 and there are certain passages which would not be seen as acceptable today but were not subject to the editor’s red pen in the pre-WW2 era. It has a dramatic beginning “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”, so we are set for a crime novel but this book is much more than a plot, which does contain murders, as we are introduced to a range of characters, firstly from Brighton’s gang world and then a woman who is determined, sometimes comically, to find out who murdered Hale, and why they did it. Greene’s main character is Pinkie, a 17 year old who has taken over one of Brighton’s minor gangs but has high ambitions for himself. Greene does not say so explicitly but the reader immediately feels that The Boy – as he is called early in the novel – is out of his depth.

The book often refers to the Catholic faith and Pinkie is ridden with guilt about his crime and also fears having his first sexual experience. Pinkie’s angst is contrasted with the devil-may-care attitude of Ida Arnold, the last person Hale was with, who doggedly follows leads in the case, while enjoying drinks in the local pubs. There is a dramatic ending but not overly dramatic as Greene builds up tension with Pinkie and Rose, whom he has married so she cannot testify against him, driving into the countryside with a gun in the car. This is a very tense novel but one which will keep you by turns intrigued and amused. Greene is a master storyteller and I urge you to read this book.

Grahame Green’s intriguing book

Colm Toíbin’s The Magician and summer sunsets

August 3, 2022

Note: Some of the text has come out larger than others.

I recently finished reading Colm Tóibín’s superb book The Magician (Guardian review) which fictionalises the life of the famous German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s book begins in the German city of Lübeck when Mann is aged 15 and takes us through Mann’s adolescence and adulthood until Mann is 80, when he dies in 1955. The novel focuses on two main themes, Mann’s family and his wife’s family and their children; and the developments in German culture and politics in the twentieth century. So the novelist of the present day who is writing about a novelist and major cultural figure in Germany, has a large canvas to paint and a story, which is complicated at times to tell. To Tóibín’s credit, the reader is entranced by the story being told here i.e. this is no dry literary biography and we are taken seamlessly from event to event in Mann’s life. The novel takes us through the birth of Mann’s children and his work as a novelist, although Tóibín does not dwell on the writing of or the content of Mann’s famous works such as Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain which led to him being recognised as a major international author.

The book also presents us with Mann as thinker and philosopher and his reflections on his beloved Germany. One of the most convincing elements of the book is Mann’s horror at the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and his struggle to resist attempts to get him to speak out against Hitler’s regime while he is still in his homeland. The Manns are forced to flee to Switzerland and then the USA after WW2. A lesser novelist might have made this an overly detailed analysis of Mann’s thinking but Tóibín cleverly interweaves family events and arguments, with major political events from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel could have been overly sentimental e.g. about Mann’s return to Germany in the 1950s, but the author avoids this. The Magician is a major work of fiction for our times and it is a fascinating and intriguing read from start to finish. You will struggle to put it down so go and buy it as soon as you can.

Superb novel about Thomas Mann (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

This summer in Scotland has been mostly sunny with temperatures above average. We have also had some spectacular sunsets on some evenings. Each year, I try to capture the perfect sunset, but of course there is no such thing and I am sure that if you showed ten of my sunset photos to ten people and asked them to choose their favourite, you might well get ten different answers. Sunsets are art from the west and thus open to interpretation. The photo below shows the setting sun just above the horizon and spreading its light across the sky. I like the combination of the low sun with its extended arms and the bulbous clouds higher in the sky. When the sun set, the sky was flooded with colour.

Bulbous clouds and setting sun

The photo below shows the spectacular colouration in the sky that we got later on in the same evening. The yellow sky above where the sun set has extended and gone into reds and purples, with the calm sea coloured by the sky. I like the darker, elongated cloud stretching over the town’s profile and looking like a sea creature making its way gently through the ocean. The more you look at this photo, the more colours and shapes you see. I found it fascinating.

Purple sea after sunset

The final sunset photo below shows a late evening mackerel sky – a sign of good weather the next day – hovering like an abstract painting with the white and yellow streaks below. The broken clouds are like brush strokes done by an impressionist, as is the more compact line of cloud below. As above, the colours are many and varied in texture and shape and this emphasises the dark solidity of the town at the bottom. The photo was taken about ten o’clock with darkness still an hour away.

Mackerel sky over Dunbar

Looking and sunsets and what comes after always has me recalling the repetitive beat and very recognisable guitar introduction to the Kinks song Waterloo Sunset, so enjoy the video below.

Finally, can I recommend that you all check out The Mack Walks, a blog done by my former co-author John Mackenzie and his wife Alison Mackenzie. It features a number of walks in Scotland and is well worth a look.

SOC print exhibition and Carry Akroyd’s book “Found in the Fields”

July 6, 2022

The current exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) is in two parts. Firstly Nature, Prints and Poetry (good photos) which is “A small exhibition in the corridor, organised with the support of the Society of Wood Engravers, presents wood engravings by 13 artists, alongside the poems that inspired them”. The larger exhibition, in the main part of the gallery, is Birds, Botany and John Clare (good photos) by Carry Akroyd (examples of her work). I received permission from SOC for my photos from the first exhibition and from Carry Akroyd to scan and reproduce prints from her book.

I chose two prints from the smaller exhibition – they were all of a very high standard. The print below – much clearer in the exhibition – is by Ray Hedger and is his interpretation of Laurie Lee’s poem April Rise (video reading). The poem’s lines include “While white as water by the lake a girl/ Swims her green hand among the gathered swans”. Hedger’s woodcut shows the girl swimming between the two elegant and graceful swans, with her long hair stretching down into the water, like the smooth back of the swan below her. Above, the other swan is putting on a display for the girl, with the trees at the lakeside spread out like fans. The poem also includes “Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod/ Splutters with soapy green”, demonstrating Lee’s powerful images.

April Rise engraving by Ray Hedger, with poem by Laurie Lee (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second wood engraving which caught my eye was The Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar (good photos). It appears that the artist has got his spelling wrong as the RSPB calls it a Grey Wagtail. The photo below – taken through glass – shows the sharp edges of the bird’s beak, tail and feet and how the artist has captured the bird’s attentive look forward. The black and white portrayal of the wagtail is enhanced by the white around its eye and the stripes on its rear feathers and tail. This loch-side scene, with the bird standing on a rock with the rippling water behind, the overturned boat outside the shed and the trees, perhaps waving in the wind, gives a feeling of being in the countryside somewhere. The wood engraving is based on the poem by Norman MacCaig and poet also calls it a gray wagtail. The poem captures the movement and the spirit of the grey wagtail. If you see one, it is in constant motion with its head going up and down as it flits from place to place. MacCaig writes “You dip and dip and go on dipping/ your tail,/ then shuttlecock up (death of a fly)/ and parachute down again/ on to your watery stone”.

Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar

The wood engravings in the first section of the exhibition are very small, but no less effective for that. As you walk into the main exhibition, you move into a different world, of large, dynamic and colourful paintings by Carry Akroyd, accompanied by whole poems (or extracts from) by John Clare (short biography). Ackroyd’s book “Found in the Fields” is on sale at the exhibition and contains her interpretation of several Clare poems, as well as work she had done over the years. The exhibition is on the Clare poems and these are included in the book, in which each page is not far short of A4 size in width and longer than A4 in height. Thus the reader sees the paintings, monoprints and mixed media works in a fairly large size. At £29.95 it is an absolute bargain, given the quality and quantity of its contents and the high production values from Swallowtail Print.

The first example from the book – see below – is entitled Swifts and the accompanying lines are from Clare’s book Northborough Sonnets. The lines of the poem include “The develing black as coal comes out at night/ & flyes above the village out of sight”. The “black as coal” is an apt description of the swifts which dart unceasingly and you can hear their cries as they speed past you. Carry Akroyd’s lithograph captures the essence of the swifts, both visually and in words “never seem to settle”. The winding river catches your eye, with the swans gliding at the bottom and you follow it through a myriad of fields to the top, as the elegant swifts pass by.

Swifts – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The second lithograph – photo below – by this artist is entitled Startled and is inspired by John Clare’s poem long poem Autumn. The section relating to the hare, quoted in the book, reads “See! from the rustling scythe the haunted hare/ Scampers circuitous, with startled ears/ Prickt up, then squat, as bye/ She brushes to the woods,/ Where reeded grass, breast-high and undisturbed,/ Forms pleasant clumps, through which the soothing winds/ Soften her rigid fears,/ And lull to calm repose”. Clare’s imagery of the “rustling scythe” and how the hare “scampers circuitous” into the woods makes the poem come alive, as we can imagine the hare desperately escaping the scythe. In the print, we can see how Carry Akroyd has managed to incorporate the motion of the hare running to the woods, with its ears “prickt up” and its determined eye, as it seeks the refuge of the woods. Clare writes “These haunts I have long favoured..” and you can see how the poet would be at home in the countryside portrayed here.

Startled – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The final example from the book – photo below – features two oil on canvas paintings on page 74. These two works are inspired by John Clare’s poem “Wood pictures in summer” which begins “The one delicious green that now pervades/ The woods and fields in endless lights and shades/ And that deep softness of delicious hues”. Carry Akroyd’s painting includes many “delicious greens” in the rolling countryside on view, but she also incorporates “delicious hues” of blues and yellows in the multiplicity of fields on show. In the nineteenth century, in Clare’s time, fields such as these would have been much smaller than they are today, as there were no tractors to plough or to reap. A view such as this today would be of large fields, maybe the size of four of five of the painting’s fields, with fewer hedgerows and trees. Also, you can imagine Clare wandering through the country lanes as he sought to ease his often-troubled mind.

Green Season and Lane through Green Fields by Carry Akroyd

The photos and scanned pages above do not do full justice to the work of the artists on show at SOC or to the clarity of the prints and paintings in Carry Akroyd’s splendid book. Enlarging the photos will give a much better impression. The exhibition runs until the end of July, so visit it if. you can and buy the book while you are there.

Walk up Traprain Law and Richard Flanagan’s Living Sea of Waking Dreams

June 19, 2022

We had a walk up Traprain Law, which was last featured on the blog in 2021.  Traprain Law (good photos) is a volcanic structure dating back some 345 million years. The National Museum of Scotland (good video) has a display of Roman silver found when the Law (Scots for hill) was quarried in the early 20th century. The silver was at first thought to be stolen, but research in the last few years has shown that it was likely to have been payment to the local Votadini tribe in return for work done. We normally walk around the foot of the Law and take the Low Level Walk – see photo below but decided to take the Summit Walk this time. My wife – the runner – is much fitter than me, but although it was a hard climb in parts, I was not too far behind at the top.

Map of Traprain Law walks (click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

You get a 360 degree view of the verdant East Lothian countryside from the top. It was very windy when we got to the summit and you could hardly hear yourself speak. The sun appeared only intermittently, so you had to keep moving to stay warm. The photo below shows the cairn at the top, just next to the Trig Point and this site tells the history of the Trig Pillars, which were established as a series of small concrete edifices for “the retriangulation of Great Britain”, starting in 1936, to aid more accurate mapping. The rough stones in the photo have been added to over the years to make a stone circle. The view is looking north and, on the coastline, you can see North Berwick Law (good photos) in the centre and the Bass Rock to the right. Unfortunately, the Bass Rock, home to 60,000 gannets each summer, has been struck by a strain of Avian Flu – read more here. Dead gannets and other seabirds have been found on the shores around Dunbar – a distressing sight.

Stone cairn at the top of Traprain Law.

In the photo below, looking south, you can see the proverbial forty shades of green in the fields beyond the rocky outcrop at the edge of the Law. The lighter shades of green are the barley fields which gradually change from green to yellow to straw colour over a period of weeks, before the harvest in late July/August. The darker green fields are of wheat, planted after the barley, but these will change colour also. The brown fields on view are potato/tattie fields and these fields will now – about 3 weeks later – will also now be green, with the shaws well established. Beyond the fields are the Lammermuir Hills, with the dark, wooded areas clearly on show. East Lothian is known as the Garden of Scotland because of its fertile soils and you can see why in this photo.

Looking south from Traprain Law

It was too windy for a video this time, but I took the video below at the same time last year.

I am a big fan of the Australian writer Richard Flanagan and I have read several of his novels over the years. I reviewed his Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North here. The book I finished recently is The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Review) and, true to form, this novel is much different from previous novels. The book is at heart, a story of a family and three siblings dealing with the hospitalisation of their Mother Francie, who is dying. The youngest – and poorest – child Tommy wants his mother to have a peaceful death, with careful medical attention to relieve the pain. The other two siblings, the much wealthier and highly educated Anna and Terzo, refuse to accept that their mother should die at all, and use their influence with contacts in the medical profession to put pressure on the hospital doctors to prolong Francie’s life, despite the pain and other side effects of the treatment.

The story is told mainly from Anna’s point of view. She deludes herself – in this reviewer’s opinion – that what she is doing is right, but I got the distinct impression that Anna feels that if her mother is allowed to die, she might die also. There is cruelty in the way Anna and Terzo prolong Francie’s life, focusing more on their own selfish desires than on their mother’s obvious pain and delirium. There is also cruelty to be seen in the backdrop to the novel, in which Australia is being threatened with destruction by wildfires and potential animal extinction. Flanagan the author is asking us – not just Australians – to pay more attention to climate change, rather than the constant demands of the digital age – Anna is obsessed with her phone’s Twitter feeds. There is an engrossing plot but no spoilers here.

Flanagan is a wonderfully expressive and sometimes poetic novelist. As Francie declines, Anna sees her mother’s body as “no more than a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in spider’s web”. On a more pleasant note, Flanagan describes parts of his native Tasmania, with Anna’s father looking at “the glittering azure of the sea, the ultramarine of the mountains, and the bands between of ploughed volcanic earth and vibrant forest and crops rippling in the racing cloud shadow”. A eucalyptus tree’s “writhing branches reminded Anna of a woman’s fingers stretching into a new glove” – the reader has to admire Flanagan’s imagination and ease of expression.

There is hope in the book, despite its dire background and hospital episodes, both for family relations and possibly for society IF we can control the effects of climate change and use digital technology to better and more productive us. A Richard Flanagan book is always worth reading and I urge you to read this one and appreciate the talent of this extraordinary novelist.

The Birks of Aberfeldy and food at the Grandtully Hotel

May 28, 2022

We recently had a two day break in Perthshire, staying at the excellent Grandtully Hotel, of which more below. The bonnie town of Aberfeldy (good photos) is 5 miles/ 8.1k from the hotel and is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area. It has an excellent bookshop – The Watermill (good photos) – and I would heartily recommend that you also visit its café (good photos, especially the food) downstairs. The town is best known for its glorious walk, known as The Birks of Aberfeldy (good photos). Birks in Scots means birch trees although part of the walk has mostly beech. The photo below was taken on the early part of the walk and you can see the Moness Burn flowing through the stones, as well as the newly-leafed trees, with their delicate greens. The stones take on various hues as the water passes over them and, at the bottom right, the stones which sit out of the water are moss-covered, adding yet another shade of green.

The Birks of Aberfeldy (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

As you walk upstream, you come across a bench with a figure sitting on it. The figure is the Scots poet Robert Burns, who wrote a song entitled Birks O’ Aberfeldy and you can see the opening lines on the bench – Simmer being Scots for summer – with Burns refers to the water here as a crystal streamlet, which is a very apt description when the sun is out over the flowing burn. Below the photo is a rendition – the best one of all I found on YouTube – of the song by Kev Thompson (more songs). The song is addressed to a bonnie lassie whom the poet asks to spend some lightsome days, with lightsome meaning happy and carefree. The bench is tastefully done and beautifully positioned near the stony water.

The Burns bench in the Birks of Aberfeldie

The walk is a steep climb to the highest point and at several points my much fitter wife waited for me to catch up – and get my breath back. It is a rewarding trek as the higher you go, the mini-waterfalls get bigger and faster and more musical to the careful listener. Also, at some points – see the photo below – water cascades from the hillside away from the burn itself. The photo shows the natural steps over which the water splashes and these appear at intervals on the walk. At this point, you get a view of the increasingly fast burn to the right and the smaller and more gently flowing water on the left. Some of the trees this far up the walk were still to come into leaf and you can see the sprawling, bare branches stretching out across the burn in friendly gestures.

Stream from the side of the hill

You can get a real demonstration of the power of the descending onrush of water from a bridge across the burn at the top of the walk. I stopped and took the video below, as I experienced a treat to my eyes and ears. to get the full effect, play the video a couple of times.

We stayed at the Grandtully Hotel (good photos) which is in the village of Ballintaggart, 5 miles east of Aberfeldy, is described by the Daily Telegraph thus – “Stylish, cosy, comfortable and fun, this eight-room hotel in a quiet Highland village is an unexpected outpost of simple design-led chic serving the kind of food you’d happily queue for in London”. The hotel is a combination of the traditional and the modern, with very spacious rooms, a bar with an impressive gantry, a guest lounge with a large selection books – many related to food – and an elegant dining room. The hotel is well known for its food and has two AA rosettes “for culinary excellence”. The Rated Trips’ inspector’s report stated “The menus are packed with outstanding local produce and the results are big, seasonal flavours – expect everything from sensational Scottish seafood to classic bistro dishes, paired beautifully with fine wine” and this is no exaggeration.

I have included three photos below of the food we had. There is an ever changing menu (sample) in the bar and the dining room, served by knowledgeable, friendly and very efficient staff. On the second night of our stay, I had the scallops along with a tasty dish of beetroot, pear and goat’s curd. In the photo below, you can see the elegant and graceful presentation of the scallops, in their shell, on a bed of stones, and delicately sliced and served with a light dressing. The combination of the scallops, the beetroot dish and the home made bread (photo below) – also nicely presented – made for a tasty treat.

Scallops at the Grandtully Hotel
Bread at the Grandtully Hotel

My wife chose the rump of lamb (photo below) and reckoned that it was the tenderest and tastiest lamb dish that she had ever experienced. You can see that the lamb is cooked to perfection and the jus (into which I dipped my bread to taste) was so flavoursome that more was requested and duly served. The hotel also has an extensive wine list and very knowledgeable bar and dining room staff to advise you. On the second night, I had a luscious and flavoursome tempranillo.

Rump of lamb at the Grandtully

The Grandtully Hotel is not within everyone’s budget but if you can afford it, this is a special place to go for an occasion e.g. birthday. The setting is superb, with the fast flowing river Tay just across the road, with a bridge from which you can watch the water hurtle past you in a series of rapids. Very highly recommended.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

Tree felling at Spott House and Thomas Kenneally’s The Dickens Boy

March 7, 2022

We went for another walk at Spott House (good photos) recently and we could see a large crane near the house from the bottom of the drive. We could also hear the insistent buzz of a chainsaw. We walked up to the top of the drive and veered right and right again up past the small herd of Orkney sheep (good photos) and the glamping pods (good photos) which have stunning views over the countryside and out to sea. On the way back past the back of the house, we could see the crane again but also two men halfway up one of the large trees. In the photo below, the two men have attached a chain around the tree, with the plan to cut the tree in half. This may have been periodical pruning of the trees or the top half may have been damaged in Storm Arwen (illustrated article) in late November. The chain looks as if it might be part of the tree, with ridged instead of smooth branches.

Affixing the chain to the tree at Spott House

In the photo below, the man on the left is checking that the chain is in place and anticipating a signal from the crane driver. The chainsaw man is poised for cutting. The small crane on the left and the tree on the right look as if they are leaning towards each other and the branches of the tree are delineated against the light blue and what became an increasingly pink sky. In the summer, when the tree is in full leaf, most of the sky beyond will not be visible, and the pink sky will arrive hours later.

Tree fellers at Spott House (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The chainsaw man then started up his machine and the elegant bird song to which we had been listening, was drowned out. In the photo below, you can see that the chainsaw has been applied to the tree and it only took seconds for the saw to separate the upper part of the tree from the remaining trunk. The tentacles on the tree below the cut still stretched out in their mazy patterns, like rivulets of water in between the rocks as the tide comes in. When the crane and the men disappeared, normality was resumed and gradually the bird song could be heard again in the stillness of the day.

Chainsaw in action at Spott House

I took the video below but did not add any commentary because of the chainsaw noise. You will see the man on the lift machine signalling to the crane driver to separate the trunk and raise the amputated part of the limb into the sky and away.

I have read a number of Thomas Kenneally‘s novel over many years but I have not featured one on the blog. His latest novel The Dickens Boy (review) is set in Australia and tells the story of Charles Dickens’ youngest son Edward – known as Plorn – who was sent there to work on a sheep farm in the bush. You can read Kenneally’s intriguing recreation of the travels of Plorn and his brother here. Kenneally was – and remains in his 80s – a wonderful storyteller and the reader is drawn into the life of young Dickens and his efforts to “prove himself” (as he puts it) to his father. We see Plorn learning the ways of the outback sheep station from his employers and his Aboriginal fellow employee. There is a mixture of life in the outback – the work, the food and the culture of the Aboriginals – as well as in intriguing examination, told in many flashbacks – of the character of the great novelist himself. Dickens emerges as a good father but also a man of contradictions. Plorn and his brother cannot escape their father’s fame in Australia, where he is revered, and on Dickens’ death, they travel to Sydney to celebrations of their father’s life. Some of these are excruciatingly boring and embarrassing to Plorn, who has not read his father’s books but is inevitably questioned about them.

Back at the sheep station, there is an incident with bushrangers who take over the farm with the intent to steal. This is well told by Kenneally although the way the bushrangers leave is perhaps implausible. We see Plorn growing up from the age of sixteen, to becoming a potential sheep station owner himself. To what extent the story is historically true is irrelevant here. This is a cracking tale which draws the reader along and takes the reader into the atmosphere, weather, cultural practices and personal relationships in Australia’s outback and its cities. Having taught and lived in rural Australia and spent time in its major cities, this was familiar territory for me and added to my enjoyment of it. Even if you have no experience of Australia, this is still am intriguing read. I highly recommend that you buy a copy and enjoy the book.

Kenneally’s excellent novel

Snowdrops in Lochend Woods and Thomas Hardy’s poems of 1912-13

February 25, 2022

Every year I try to go somewhere different to take photos of the snowdrops which now adorn our woods and gardens. In 2021, I posted this description of the snowdrops at Smeaton Lake. I also remind you each year of Alice Oswald’s uniquely beautiful poem The Snowdrop – read here by Andrew Motion, accompanied by some elegant and graceful photos, including a close-up one of raindrops on the flower. I have just found another site in which you can look at and listen to – “The Snowdrop: An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring”. Produced by Cambridge University Botanic Garden (good photos), this site is well worth exploration for its information, stunning photography and The Snowdrop – with lyrics – read by Sandie Cain, the garden’s Horticultural Learning Coordinator. I make no apologies for once again quoting from Oswald’s poem “Yes, she’s no more than a drop of snow/ on a green stem…. But what a beauty, what a mighty power/ of patience kept intact is now in flower”.

This year, on the advice of my wife who had seen the snowdrops emerge and spread while out running, I went up to Dunbar’s Lochend Woods. As you enter the woods from the east, there are small clumps of snowdrops scattered about, but these are a mere smattering of white and some are barely visible. If you walk towards the end of the woods to the south, you come across the heavily populated area – like going from the countryside into a large urbanised area. The photo below gives a close-up view of a peaceful and sedate looking snowdrop community. As ever, the heads – gorgeous white bells – are bowed as the flowers maintain their private thoughts. The photo also shows the forest floor environment in which the snowdrops grow during their relatively short lives. Not only are there brown leaves from last autumn but the green, spiky, storm-blown mini-branches of the neighbouring fir trees. The sunlight adds to the aesthetics of the photo, emphasising the brilliant whiteness of the snowdrop heads.

Snowdrops and leaves in Lochend Woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

One of the pleasures of walking through the woods at this time of year – on a sunny day as I did – is not only the sun on the snowdrops but the shadows cast by the trees. The sun highlights the snowdrops’ glistening white heads and verdant green stems and produces long, pipe like shadows stretching effortlessly across the forest floor. The photo below shows a group of snowdrops at the base of the tree and other patches spread across the ground. The huge base of the tree trunk has some dead ivy branches which still snake around the tree, sending out smaller stems in a criss-cross pattern. The shadows to the right of the tree are solid and tunnel-looking, temporarily darkening the earth around the flowers, before moving on during the day.

Snowdrops and shadows in Lochend Woods

I took this video of the wider area of the snowdrops, the trees, the shadows and the sunshine.

I recently listened to a podcast of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time which focused on the poetry of Thomas Hardy. My particular interest in this podcast was my memory of studying Hardy as a student – many years ago at the University of Edinburgh. I bought the book of Hardy’s Selected Poems (cover in the photo below) as a first year student, but I have dipped into it many times over the years, reading in particular the section entitled Poems of 1912-13 which are featured in the podcast. There are some outstanding poems here, with many memorable lines. The problem with the poems comes in the question of Hardy’s personal background to the poems. Hardy’s wife Emma died in 1912 but the couple had been estranged for many years. Hardy then married Florence Dugdale, with whom he had been in a relationship before his wife’s death. The poems represent an outpouring of grief on Hardy’s part, as he remembers his younger wife and their happier moments. Some have questioned whether Hardy genuinely grieved his wife’s death but Tim Armstrong suggests that the sequence of poems “remains one of the greatest and most personal elegiac sequences written in English” and “a uniquely honest image of the poet struggling with his own grief and remorse”.

It is the language of the poems and the images in them that interests me most, rather than how genuinely or not Hardy grieved his wife. Here are some examples of my favourite lines. From The Voice “Thus I; faltering forward/ Leaves around me falling/ Wind oozing through the thorn from norward/ And the woman calling” – note the wind oozing as opposed to the usual blowing. From Beeny Cliff “O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,/ And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free” – here we see expressive use of colours of the sea – opal and sapphire – and alliteration in wandering western and flapping free – Hardy almost paints a scene for us here. In the same poem, the waves are “engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say” – listen to the sound of the waves next time you are on a beach and think about Hardy’s onomatopoeia in engrossed, ceaseless and say. From We sat at the Window “And the rain came down in silken strings/ That Swithin’s day. Each gutter and spout/ babbled unchecked…”. This is a superb image of the rain as silken strings and the gutters are – like the sea above – babbling. You can read many of Hardy’s poems e.g. Beeny Cliff here on the Thomas Hardy Society website. You will not be disappointed.

My well thumbed copy of Hardy’s poems