Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese
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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and swans at Belhaven

July 25, 2019

The latest novel which I have just finished reading is Home Fire (review) by the now renowned author Kamila Shamsie (interview with author). This is a fascinating and very well written story about the clash between politics and religion and the family strains that involvement in such a clash can involve. Karamat Lone is Home Secretary in the UK and is of Pakistani origin. He is regarded as a Muslim although he is a humanist. The story involves Lone and his son Eamonn, who becomes romantically involved with another family, also of Pakistani origin. Eamonn first meets Isma in the USA and then her sister Aneeka in the UK. The main story revolves around Isma’s and Aneeka’s brother Parvaiz, who is indoctrinated in London and goes to join ISIS in Syria. No spoilers here, so I will give no more of the plot. The author does present us with an intriguing story and although moral choices may be at the heart of the novel, the plot nevertheless keeps us reading. Shamsie, like all good novelists, is an excellent storyteller and we can easily identify with the characters and the decisions they do and do not make. I highly recommend that you read this intriguing novel.

K Shamsie’s intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

With the warm weather we have been having in Scotland over the last week, we have been going for short walks in the evening after our meal. A few days ago, we went down to Belhaven beach and walking past the bridge, coming towards us was a family of swans, with two adults and eight fast maturing cygnets. The photo below (taken on my phone, so not as clear as I would wish) shows the approaching swans. The group formed a straight line at first and looked like the peloton at Le Tour. When they came to the sandbank, they broke up and one cygnet (see photo) climbed on to the sand. At this, the two parents turned round and headed back out towards the sea. There is an elegant perfection in adult swans.

A family of swans at Belhaven beach

This prompted me to think when I last featured swans on the blog and this 2015 photo shows swans on Belhaven Pond, which is not far from the beach. This shows the swans in action, gliding along the smooth pond and making ripples. The trees in the background are in full leaf and I like the tranquillity of this scene.

Swans and ducks on Belhaven pond

For a more close up view of a swan family, we need to go back to this 2010 photo which was taken on the rocky shoreline next to Dunbar Golf Course, which is on the other side of the town from Belhaven Beach and just along the road from our house. This is a contrasting setting for the swans. Gone is the smooth pond at Belhaven, but there is still great attraction in the rocks and pools and rock formations here. The adults and cygnets look very contemplative in this photo and paid no heed to this human interloper into their resting place.

Swan family on the shore east of Dunbar

One of my favourite poems is Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats and these lines show his admiration for these magnificent birds who give us all so much pleasure when we see them in the water, on the shore or in the air.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

This post appears earlier than it might as we are off to Poland this weekend for a friends’ son’s wedding. Watch this space.

Researching in the National Library of Scotland and prolific lavender in the garden

July 19, 2019

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh many years ago, access to the National Library of Scotland was denied to undergraduates until they entered their honours year – the fourth year of study. I spent much of this final year in the National Library as I could get documents relating to my dissertation which the university library did not have. I also found it a very conducive place to study as it was quiet and had an academic atmosphere. I was took one of my friends to the Reading Room and he had to leave after a short period of time as he said it was too quiet. Study habits, such as where and when to study, tend to be formed when students are in their early teens and, despite claims you will find on the internet about e.g. the study habits of successful students, individuals differ in the preferences. When I took up local history research a few years ago, after retiring, I went back to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) to get books and articles relating to my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. I still find the NLS an enthralling place to visit.

Stairs up to the Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo above (taken on my phone) shows the stairs which lead up to the main Reading Room and the NLS have taken to insert quotations from famous scholars on view here. David Hume was an eighteenth century philosopher who was born in Edinburgh and is recognised as one of the most important philosophers in the world. So there is a grand stairway leading up to where the real research is done.

Looking down from the Reading Room level at the NLS

This photo shows the view from the 2nd flight of stairs above the main stairs. The window frames at the top right are only part of this huge window ” comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library”. The ornate banisters on either side are “painted in black with gold leaf and [each] has a mahogany handrail”.  A fuller description can be found here. On the walls are framed examples of some of the illustrative work to be found in the NLS archives. Many visitors come up to this point to admire the interior but only NLS members i.e. people doing research, can enter the Reading Room.

Inside the NLS Reading Room – upstairs

Once you go through the Reading Rooms, you have to place your NLS card on a reader to go further. To get your reserved books – and this is still a predominantly book-based library – you go to a desk where the assistant will retrieve your ordered material. I reserved three books yesterday and collected them today. It is an excellent service as you can return the books and and get them back for another five days. The NLS is not a lending library. Upstairs in the Reading Room, in the photo above, you can see the domed and squared roof windows which let in natural light. This library is for serious research, so it is quiet and therefore conducive to learning. This is not to say that all libraries should be quiet. Far from it – lending and children’s sections of public libraries should encourage conversation and school libraries (one of my former areas of research) should be places where students, teachers and school librarians can discuss what is being studied. The NLS also has regular free exhibitions which are certainly worth visiting.

It is now midway through our summer in the UK and in our garden, the lavender bushes are now at their peak. Lavender plants are prolific growers, with their abundant stems reaching up to one metre above the base. In the winter, the lavender is almost invisible – a series of grey patches in the garden – but in summer, it shoots up to dominate the landscape in a furious burst of colour.

Prolific lavender in our front garden

The photo above shows how the lavenders of different kinds have spread themselves across the garden. Every time I walk into the house, I rub my fingers on a lavender head and take in the wonderful scent provided by the bush. After a shower of rain, if you open the front door, the lavender scent wafts across your face and you can inhale the welcoming odour.

Lavender, hydrangea and roses

The photo above shows how the lavender provides height at the back of our small patch of garden outside the front door. Near the front, the smaller lavender, with its much thicker heads has spread itself over the ground in the past year. The poppies still in flower on the right hand side are accidental i.e. not planted by us but spread by the wind or the birds. Lavender has featured in literature for many centuries. Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale) wrote ” Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/ The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun”. Lavender has also been seen as health giving. A 1545 herbal states ” I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head”.

A rose after the rain

Finally, one of the climbing roses, seen in close-up – my favourite form of photography. There is startling beauty in this rose – the delicate petals still holding on to the raindrops and the exquisite centre, with its pink and orange. The flowers may only last for about a week in total but the look and smell of them linger in the memory for much longer.

Malcolm Mackay novel and Peebles revisited

July 9, 2019

Having taken a few weeks to read Milkman (previous post), I read Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye in a week. This is a crime novel – which won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award – with a difference. In most crime fiction, the police are the main characters and the focus is on their thinking and their procedures and (mostly) how they solve the crime. In Mackay’s novel – the 2nd in a trilogy about the Glasgow underworld – the focus is on the criminals themselves and in particular, on Frank MacLeod who has spent his adult life as a gunman or hit man for organised crime in the city. Mackay takes us very convincingly into the mind of Frank (as he is referred to in the novel) and his boss Peter Jamieson, who runs legitimate bars and nightclubs but is also involved in drug dealing. The novel is written in short sentences and short chapters but this adds to the quality of the writing, rather than detracting from it e.g. “People [other gunmen] get surprised by something and freeze. Never happened to Frank”. There is an excellent array of characters with some deep insight into the mindset of Frank, a young gunman Calum and Jamieson. The plot moves with alacrity and the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. My attempts to second guess Mackay all failed. Frank MacLeod is obviously a bad person, who has killed many people to order, but the reader will have some sympathy with Frank’s dilemna – no spoiler here – around which the book is shaped. We should not sympathise with such a character, but we do. There are policemen in the book but they are on the sidelines. So how does a gunman say goodbye? You will have to read this highly recommended book. There is a very good interview with Malcolm Mackay here.

Excellent crime novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the weekend, we had a visit from my friend and ex-colleague Bob, on a visit from Australia, who has been to Dunbar a number of times but had never visited Peebles in the Scottish Borders. We had a walk along Peebles’ attractive High Street with its late Victorian architecture and I took Bob down a close (Scots for alley or vennel) to see the door of what is still a painter’s and decorator’s business. In the photo below, you can see that this ornate leaded window on the door shows the much wider extent of the business in former times. A gilder was “someone whose occupation was to apply an overlay of gold or gilt” according to one dictionary. The firm also installed windows – glazier and painted signs for businesses – sign writer. A bellhanger turns out to be what it says on the tin – a skilled tradesman who hung bells, presumably in churches.

Windows on a door in Peebles

We then had a 4 mile walk (good photos) along the River Tweed which runs through Peebles. It was a sunny day and there were excellent reflections of the trees across the river. In the photo below, you can see how the reflections slightly blur the image of the trees, but still give you a double view of the trunks and extensive branches of the trees that line the river bank.

The River Tweed in Peebles

Further on in the walk, we looked up to see Neidpath Castle and the website cited contains a very good aerial view of the castle at this time of year. I took the photo below in the winter time, so the trees are bare, but this gives you a clearer view of the castle itself. The castle has a long history going back to the 12th century and it is described as “rubble-built” i.e. mainly of rough stone and you can see this from the ruined section to the left of the castle.

Neidpath Castle near Peebles

The walk then passes a very impressive bridge along which the railway used to run. The photo below – again taken in the winter on another visit – shows the structure of the bridge, which has eight arches and in the column at the side of each arch, there is a cross., the significance of which I could not find. Above the arches, you can see the cast-iron railings which are another attractive feature of what is called the Neidpath Viaduct.

The old railway bridge near Peebles

The walk continues to another bridge which we crossed and made our way back to Peebles over the hill and along the side of the extensive forest.

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre

Guardian Country diary on bluebells and honeysuckle in the garden

June 7, 2019

At the beginning of May, I read an inspiring Guardian Country Diary article by Paul Evans entitled “Spring pilgrimage to an uncanny bluebell wood” and I have kept it in mind for the blog. Evans is a poetic writer with a great gift of finding appropriate words for the scenes he describes and this article begins ” Bluebells in Black Hayes – the sky above the leafing oaks is spring clear, with an echoing blue shimmer across the woodland floor” and further on we find that this blue shimmer is a carpet of bluebells. The photo below is a local shimmer of blue in the form of bluebells in the woods at Foxlake woods near Dunbar. It is a wonderful sight as the colour of the delicate looking bluebells is enhanced by the mainly still bare trees.

Bluebells at Foxlake woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Evans continues ” Black Hayes is strangely open, a kind of wood pasture whose secret valley slopes support amazing lawns of bluebells” and it to these woods, situated near former coal mines, that he makes an annual pilgrimage ” to stand and look and breathe them in”. While I enjoy the look and faint smell of the bluebells, I need to get close up to the flowers to see their intricate patterns and the surprising number of shades of blue in each flower, as in the photo below.

Many shades of blue

Evans feels that this wood “is always uncanny as if resents trespass” but he then hears the birds singing, which is more positive, although he ends with “A pair of ravens bark at our presence” and the poet in him returns. This is a short article but one with depth and you have feeling reading it that you might have been by the writer’s side. The bluebells have had their time in the sunlight at Foxlake and the ground is now in shade as the trees have a canopy of leaves, but the sight of them lives long in the memory.

Bluebells at Foxlake

In my garden, the honeysuckle is in full flower and an absence of strong westerly winds, which we often get at this time of year, has meant that the flowers have lasted longer than normal. I cut the honeysuckle back last year and this has resulted in a new flourish of these multicoloured flowers. You can see in the photo below that when the honeysuckle do flower, there is an extravaganza of flower heads, with beautiful white, pink and purple on display. Honeysuckle with its scientific name of lonicera is also known as woodbine and in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon refers to a bank “Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine”.

Honeysuckle bush in full flower

As with the bluebells, you need to get close up and personal with the honeysuckle to see how it takes on an altogether more surreal appearance. In the photo below, the flower takes on the structure of an alien creature, newly arrived on earth, with its octopus like tentacles spread out to catch sight of (and maybe devour) the strange earthlings.

Multi limbed honeysuckle flower

When you take a step back, you can see (next photo) how the flowers and the leaves complement each other, with the delicately veined leaves providing a background for the more colourful flowers which have, like the bluebells, an amazing range of shades of colour. We are now officially in summer here in the UK and the honeysuckle sparkling in the sunshine today really make it feel like summer. Mmmm – a pity about that cool east wind.

Fever by Don Meyer and two SOC artists

April 1, 2019

My first experience of the South African writer Deon Meyer was his novel Icarus (blog review here) and I was very impressed. I have just finished reading his dystopian book Fever (review). The story is set in South Africa after a deadly virus – the Fever of the title – has destroyed the world, with only a few people surviving in each country. Willem Storm and his son Nico are the main protagonists of this well written and well plotted novel. Willem Storm takes his son to set up a new town called Amanzi in rural South Africa and they are joined by a variety of fellow survivors. There are some very tense scenes as the town is attacked by motor cycle gangs whose only aim is to plunder. There is also the story of Nico’s teenage years as a member of the Amanzi “army”, led by a powerful presence in the book called Domingo. The town expands and prospers but has to be constantly vigilant. Philosophical and religious differences emerge amongst the community and Willem Storm’s presidency comes under threat. It is an intriguing and often exciting tale of survival and progress. Like other reviewers, I found the ending unconvincing but not everyone will take this view. It’s a long book – over 500 pages – and very well worth reading as Meyer is a consummate story teller, who brings his characters to life extremely well. Buy it and see what you think.

Meyer’s post-apocalyptic novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The latest exhibition at the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in Aberlady features 4 artists, two of which I feature here. The exhibition finishes on 10 April and a visit is highly recommended because of the quality of the art and the spread of styles. The first work below is by Carry Akroyd who is a painter and printmaker and the show includes some of her stunning work. The piece below is a clever depiction of terns in flight as well as wind turbines in motion. The terns are displayed in full colour but also in white (like the turbines) with a small dab of black. There is a superb feeling of movement in this work and the streamlined birds look elegant and effortless in their flight – maybe in contrast to the more laboured motion of the concrete turbines. The variety of colours is also attractive in what is predominantly a happy picture. There is another version of this print which is a postcard entitled “Big Turns and Little Terns”.

Arctic Terns by Carry Akroyd

The second artist is Babs Pease, who is an artist, illustrator and printmaker. This print is simply entitled Swans and it is a very impressive piece of art when you see it in the exhibition in full-size. What intrigued me about this piece was the artist’s decision to show the swans not in their natural white but mainly in various shades of delicate blue. I liked the way in which the swans are taking up different postures and are facing different ways, as are the reeds in the background. The rivers of colour in the birds’ plumage take your eye across the birds and down to their solid dark grey feet. You then notice the splash of orange in their beaks. The curves and patterns in the birds and the reeds give it a hint of surrealism – like swans in a dream. The poet Yeats saw his swans ” All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings”. In the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats describes the swans as “Mysterious, beautiful” and Pease’s swans meet those criteria. We often see and hear swans as they fly past the house – Yeats ” The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – or, as yesterday, float serenely on the nearby sea.

Swans by Babs Pease

There is much pleasure to be had by visiting this exhibition if you can or by watching our for these artists in the future.

Bia Bistrot restaurant and cycling against the wind

March 18, 2019

We’ve now been twice to the excellent Bia Bistrot restaurant in Edinburgh. The name is intriguing and its origins lie in the background of the owners and chefs. Roisin (pr Rosheen) is Irish and she provides the Bia which is Irish Gaelic for food. Matthias is French and Bistrot is a French form of bistro. Their philosophy is to provide customers with “good food in a bistro atmosphere” and they certainly do that. The restaurant is situated just off Holy Corner in Edinburgh’s Morningside area. The name Holy Corner originates from the 4 churches which are situated on or near the crossroads on Morningside Road. So to the food in Bia Bistrot. Forget about good food which the restaurant offers, this is very high quality food at very reasonable prices, especially at lunch time. There is a daily set menu at lunch time which offers customers 2 courses for £10 and 3 courses for £12. Given the location of the restaurant – Morningside is often seen as quite posh – and the quality of the food, this is amazing value. On our last visit, 2 out of the four of us choose this menu and were not disappointed. One of the dishes which is not on the regular menu but is part of the daily specials from time to time, is (photo below) Gressingham duck terrine & raspberry dressing. This is a dish that looks good when it is laid in front of you but it’s when you taste it that its appeal rises from good to superb. Sometimes when you go to good restaurants, the lunch menu is cheaper but the portions can be meagre. This is certainly not the case with Bia Bistrot.


An attractive and tasty starter in Bia Bistrot (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I chose a dish off the main menu, the Cod fillet, saffron potatoes, crayfish and chorizo bisque and the dish itself matches your expectations when you read the ingredients. It’s also wonderful to look at as in the photo below – enlarge for best effect. There’s a lot of talk these days about food porn i.e. people taking more time to photograph their food and sending it out via social media, than it takes to eat the food. In this restaurant, the eating is the real reward as you enjoy a delicious combination of fresh ingredients. The photos were sent to me by Matthias. The service in Bia Bistrot is friendly, attentive but not intrusive and the food is of a very high quality. Everyone we know who has gone to the restaurant sings its praises, so if you are in the area, be sure to book ahead.

Attractive and delicious cod dish at Bia Bistrot

For the past 2 weeks, we’ve had strong to gale force winds almost every day and the early spring flowers such as the crocuses in a previous post, have been battered relentlessly. As far as cycling goes, I left my lighter road bike in the garage and went out on my mountain bike, which is heavier but more stable in the wind. There is lots of advice on the web about cycling against the wind e.g. here but much of it is stating the obvious, such as checking the direction and strength of the wind before you go out. Cycling against the wind comes in two forms. The most straightforward – and the hardest – is cycling into the wind. When you are having to cycle down a hill just to keep going, it’s you and the bike against the wind – a battle that one of you is going to win. There’s no time to look at the brilliant green of the emerging crops in the fields in spring around Dunbar or to admire the freshness and shiny undulations in a newly ploughed field. The second form is not as hard but can be the most dangerous. This is when the wind is coming at you from the side. There is a steep hill going down to Pitcox farm and the “big hoose (house)” (good photo), and this can be an exhilarating ride, but in very strong winds there is a need to anticipate the gaps in the hedges which line the fields, as the wind surges through and can knock you across the road. There are also two joys of cycling against the wind. The first is that you can hear the wind coming against you but also you can hear it whooshing through the trees at the road side. The poet Longfellow wrote
I hear the wind among the trees
Playing celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.

A new word to me is Psithurism which is the sound of the wind through the trees – the P is silent and it is obviously onomatopoeic, as when you pronounce each syllable slowly, you can hear the wind. The second joy is at the turning point in the cycle ride and you get what my pal John calls “a blaw hame (blow home)”. This your reward for the previous struggle against the wind and you can hurtle along the road with impunity.

Don Winslow’s The Force and historic hotel in Dunbar

March 7, 2019

I have just finished reading The Force by the US author Don Winslow. To say that this book has been well received is an understatement. The Daily Telegraph – “This stands out by a mile.. uncommonly exhilarating”. The Times Literary Supplement – “Shocking and shockingly convincing …sinewy, flexible, raw…”. The New York Times – “A stunner of a cop novel .. devastating plot”. It is certainly a well written novel, with caustic dialogue and reveals corruption at the heart of not only the New York police but of the whole political system. The protagonist – a very flawed “hero” – is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, who is in charge of The Force – a small group of policemen whose main task is to keep the lid on potential violence in the black communities in the city. Malone is portrayed as a kind of Robin Hood as he protects the Manhattan North community from local gangs, while at the same time ensuring that the drug trade can continue but without a surfeit of hard drugs. It quickly becomes clear – no spoiler here – that Malone and his team are corrupt BUT see themselves as involved in low grade corruption, to protect their families. This is a very masculine book, with many violent incidents which are well written and not overly dramatised. The women in the book are mainly in the background and I wonder if female readers may find this off putting. There are a number of plots involving Malone’s relationships with his two closest colleagues, with drug dealers, with gangs, with lawyers and with politicians. Some readers may think that there is a moral vacuum at the heart of this novel – corruption is everywhere – but in interviews, Winslow argues that his research revealed that corruption was indeed rife in New York. For fans of crime novels, Winslow’s big book will be a welcome addition to the genre.

New Don Winslow novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

One of my roles as a committee member of Dunbar and District History Society is to update the Resources section of the Society website each month. This month, we are featuring hotels in the town which have changed their names over the years and some have closed down as hotels. The photos and newspaper clipping below come from the Society archives. One of the hotels caught my interest as there is some social history attached to it.

The photo below of Kerridge’s Hotel shows a building which still stands today, albeit with extensions both left and right. It became the Bayswell Hotel after Kerridge’s and retains that name today locally, although it appears to have been renamed the Bayswell Park Hotel recently. The hotel was built in the 1890s and in 1903, Slater’s Commercial Directory presented a list of Dunbar hotels including “Kerridge’s Family Hotel (facing the sea) (Mrs J Kerridge proprietress) Bayswell Park, Dunbar”. The Scottish Military Research Group site, referring to the Dunbar war memorial quotes a source stating “Intimation has been received in Dunbar by his relatives that Private Louis Kerridge of the Cameron Highlanders, has been killed in action. He had been out of the trenches on eight days leave and on the day in which he returned, he was killed. A postcard was received from him by his children which bore the words ‘Be good. And God bless you’. Deceased was the son of Mrs Kerridge of Kerridge’s Hotel, and at one time a prominent player in the Dunbar Football Club”. In another source, a person doing research on the Bayswell Hotel states that “The hotel was known as Kerridge’s Hotel. In 1901 Jane Kerridge was Hotel Keeper. She was a widow aged 61”.

Dunbar Hotel in the 1890s/1900s

I found a newspaper cutting – from the Haddingtonshire Courier (now the East Lothian Courier) referring to the hotel. There is no date on the cutting but it will be from the 1890s. The cutting is shown below and is interesting in that it refers to the “New Esplanade” which is the promenade – built in 1894 – near the hotel. The strapline states that the hotel provides “Good stabling and baths” indicates that people staying there may have brought carriages with them. It also implies that not all hotel accommodation at the time provided residents with a bath. Nowadays, hotels often do not have baths either, but walk-in showers instead. It would appear that Mr Kerridge died before 1901 and Mrs Kerridge took over.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus and crocuses in Stenton

February 26, 2019

A delay in the blog due to visiting rellies, local history talk and a grand day out with my former (but never old) classmates Tam and Nigel. I’ve just finished reading the latest Poetry Book Society Choice, Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance. The young poet Raymond Antrobus is described as British-Jamaican and part of the book is an elegy to his late father. The other distinguishing feature of this remarkably assured debut collection is Antrobus’ reflections on his experience as a child and young adult who was deaf at birth. The first poem is Echo and begins “My ear amps whistle as if singing/ to Echo, Goddess of Noise,/ the ravelled knot of tongues,/ of blaring birds, consonant crumbs/ of dull doorbells, sounds swamped/ in my misty hearing aid tubes”. It is obviously impossible for a person with normal hearing to imagine being deaf, but these lines gives us a vivid description of what it might be like. Antrobus’ precision with words e.g. “ravelled knot”, “consonant crumbs” or “misty” makes you read the lines again, to get the full effect. Part of the book is an anguished cry about what he calls the d/Deaf experience and how deaf children have been treated unequally because of their difference i.e. not disability e.g. “I call you out… for assessing / deaf students on what they can’t say / instead of what they can”. The title of the book The Perseverance refers to the name of the pub the poet’s father used to leave him outside as a child and “watch him disappear / into smoke and laughter”. His father tells him “There’s no such thing as too much laughter” after visiting the pub, but the poet notes that this may be true, “unless you’re my mother without my father”. The father may be flawed (and who is not?) but is mostly a loving and patient father, especially when reading to his deaf son. Antrobus has a wonderful facility for creating emotion with words. Referring to his father’s late dementia, he thanks the syndrome for bringing back memories of the past to his father, such as the dance halls he enjoyed. “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue / wet with babbling, / you came, unravelling a joy / making him euphoric” and he asks dementia to ” do your gentle magic / but make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing”. Antrobus is a young poet and his second collection will be expectantly awaited.


A remarkable debut collection from an outstanding poet (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The previous post featured snowdrops, and as Monday follows Sunday, the crocuses follow the snowdrops with a blaze of colour, as if determined to outshine their plain green and white predecessors. Out on the bike, I often cycle through the bonnie village of Stenton which is about 6 miles/ 10K from Dunbar, away from the coast to the foot of the hills. There are two extensive groups of crocus in the village. The first photo shows the spread of different colours in the flowers, with a stone cottage in the background and the church spire just above the cottage.

Crocuses in Stenton village

The next photo shows the spread of crocuses beneath The Tron – a wooden beam with an iron crossbar and hooks on either end. This device was historically used to weigh bulk items such as wool and grain in the markets which used to be held in the village. The word tron is derived from the French word for balance – more information here.

Crocuses beneath the Tron in Stenton village

I took a number of close-up shots of the crocuses – you can also refer to croci as crocus is a Latin word, albeit derived from the Greek krokos – to get a better view of their strength of colour along with the delicacy of their flower heads. The first photo shows two groups of crocuses, one yellow and one purple. They complement each other and are shown off to good effect by the green of the grass beneath them. When the crocuses first start to appear, it is their own greenery – hiding the emergent flowers – which shows first and they can be hard to spot. Then, all of a sudden it seems, there is a huge outbreak of colour.

A choir of yellow and purple crocuses

On closer inspection, in the photo below, you can see the bright orange stigma reaching out to attract the bees and other pollinators. What is more attractive is the David Hockney like lines inside the flower. These thin and thicker purple lines resemble images of trees in winter. Walking past this group of crocuses, you might never see these patterns.

Patterns inside the crocus flower heads in Stenton

In the next photo – of one crocus – the lines are even more delicate and the sun shining on part of the flower head adds to it beautiful shape and patterns.

I then went along to the village green to see the other natural display – another outburst of colours on the grass and between the trees. The final photo shows the sweep of the crocuses, the colour enhanced by the bare trees, and the solid stone cottages, of which there are many in this very attractive East Lothian village.

Crocuses on the village green in Stenton