Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders and Mount Maunganui

December 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

Container ship heading towards Tauranga harbour.

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

Mount Maunganui beach and The Mount.

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

View over Mount Maunganui beach 

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

Cruise liner heading for Tauranga Harbour

Advertisements

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

IMG_0933

Autumnal sky above Dunbar

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

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

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

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar

 

 

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

October 11, 2018

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

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

Carey novel

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

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

IMG_0769

The Sunshade by William Leech

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

IMG_0774

Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

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

IMG_0776

Return from Market by John Lavery

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

The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

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

IMG_0730

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

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

Prqgue nights

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

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

IMG_0726

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

 

IMG_0728

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

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

img_8200[1]

Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

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

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

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

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

IMG_0533

The Danish National Gallery’s extension

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

IMG_0535

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

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

img_0542.jpg

Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

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

IMG_0547

Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

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

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

July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Scottish Birds cover

Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

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

Raven

Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

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

Siskin 1

Siskin by Harry Scott

Deon Meyer’s Icarus and bike stop at Oldhamstocks

June 8, 2018

I’ve just finished Deon Meyer’s excellent novel Icarus. Now the fact that this book is about a group of policemen trying to figure out who killed a man in Cape Town means that it will be categorised as a crime novel. If it is to be so categorised, then it should be classified as a superior crime novel. In Icarus, the protagonist is the troubled Benny Griessel, whose problems with alcohol affect both his working and social life. There are many troubled detectives around e.g. Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but Meyer’s detailed characterisation is well beyond the scope of most crime novelists. The author also presents, in a subtle fashion, South African society with its many racial and economic stresses. We also get an intriguing picture of different areas of Cape Town and the surrounding wine areas. The plot revolves around the murder of Ernst Richter, an entrepreneur who has set up a business which provides alibis for errant husbands (mainly) and wives. On the face of it, the company is very successful although we slowly come to see that this is not the case. Meyer maintains an excellent pace, with careful plotting and, like many other crime novelists, he does not lose his nerve at the end of the novel and go for a melodramatic conclusion. There is an unexpected twist right at the end of the book which is hard to see coming, and the reader is led up quite a few garden paths by the author. There is also humour in the book and some interesting detail on the development of the South African wine trade, as well as the more usual strains between different police departments. I will certainly return to this author and I encourage you to try out one of his books.

Scan_20180605

Icarus by Deon Meyer (Click to enlarge all photos)

I am gradually getting back to some kind of bike fitness, mainly through a series of rides up the hills near Dunbar. We’ve had an easterly air flow – thanks to the Jet Stream unfortunately getting stuck to the west of the UK – for about 4 weeks now. So I have been heading east – I always go against the wind at the start of my bike ride – on a 24 mile (39K) route which takes in a fair few hills. The route takes me on a countryside route to Cockburnspath (good photos) and up the hill to the turning which takes you on to the Abbey St Bathans (good photos) road. If you continue on this road, then there are some serious hills on the way to and from Abbey St Bathans, but I turn off on the undulating road leading to Oldhamstocks, where I usually stop for a drink and a liquorice or treacle toffee.

I returned there yesterday with my proper camera, as the mobile camera was not effective on my bike ride. One of the features of the countryside around Dunbar at the moment is the hawthorn blossom which is also known as May blossom. The Scots equivalent of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” is “Ne’er cast a cloot till May is oot”. The meaning of this saying is that you should not discard any winter clothes until the May blossom appears i.e. not until the month of May ends. Due to the cold Spring we had here, the hawthorn blossom has not emerged in full until June this year, but what a show it now provides on countryside hedgerows and trees. In the first photo below, the cascading white blossoms can be seen and they are enhanced by the sun. The blossom totally transforms the tree from what one journalist wrote “In winter it [hawthorn bush] is a dour barrier of bare thorns”, into “the creamy curds of May blossom”. There is a deliciousness about the look of the tree, as if it had been decorated with tiny balls of ice cream and dusted with icing sugar.

IMG_0388

Hawthorn tree is full blossom

On closer inspection – in the photo below – you can see the individual flowers that contribute to this mass display, with their delicate petals and thin stamens reaching out to capture the sun and attract the insects. It reminded me of something divers see on coral reefs and you can imagine the hawthorn flowers dancing with the flow of the water on the seabed.

IMG_0382

Close-up of May blossom

This stop – and it is a bus stop also – is also interesting for the signposts in the photo below. No metrication here – I had cycled two and half miles from Cockburnspath, which is known locally as Co’path and is pronounced Co-burnspath. Below this, it should read Duns (good photos), an attractive border town which is 12 very hilly miles away. To the right, one mile ahead is Stottencleugh – cleugh is pronounced clue – ch (as in German Ich). In Scots, a cleugh is a narrow gorge and there is one near the farm of Stottencleugh. Below Stottencleugh, Cocklaw is signposted as one and a half miles away and it is a farm at the bottom of a very steep hill. This is a popular walking area (good photos). The larger signpost below points to Woollands ,which is a farmhouse set in extensive grounds on a hill and has magnificent views.

IMG_0384

Oldhamstocks signposts

After my stop, I followed the sign pointing up the big hill towards Innerwick and its normally hidden castle ruin. There is one last steep, winding hill you need to get up – to The Brunt farmhouse and steading  and from there it’s downhill and back to Dunbar.

Homegoing and a brief visit to the Botanic Gardens

April 14, 2018

I have recently enjoyed reading Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing. For most of this novel, you would not guess that you are reading an author’s first book, so assured is Gyasi’s writing. The book’s early chapters are focused on slavery in its African setting and Gyasi paints a vivid picture of the mechanics of the slave trade e.g. tribes capturing men and women from villages and selling them to the British, who live in a white fort. There are also some gripping scenes where slaves are captured and kept in the castle’s dungeons in horrible conditions. The key characters at this stage are Effia who is sold to a British captain and slave trader as a wife, and her half sister Esi who is captured as a slave and taken to the castle’s overcrowded dungeons. The chapters that follow tell the stories of seven generations of these two women, firstly in West Africa and subsequently in the USA. There are further harrowing scenes of the mistreatment of slaves in the cotton plantations in the southern states of the USA. This is contrasted by the stories of how the characters meet their future husbands and wives, and Gyasi’s writing is vivid and moving, but never sentimentalised. The later chapters on the lives of black Americans in more recent times are less convincing, with Gyasi’s lack of experience as a novelist showing through at times. Despite this, Homegoing is a brilliant book and well worth reading. Some of the characters will live in your memory for quite a while.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our visit to Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens was cut short by heavy rain but in the short time we were there, we saw some exquisite spring flowers and shrubs. There is so much to see in the gardens – and entry is free except for some special exhibitions. You can get a flavour of the gardens and the myriad of plants to be seen all year round in this short video. What first attracted my attention were the large buds opening on a variety of trees. In the photo below, this close up of a bud bursting into leaf seems to show the tremendous energy that the tree has to exert to produce this new elegance. There is also a beautiful range of colours on display here, from the vivid purple at the bottom to the delicate greens and yellows at the top. You also get the impression that once the leaves open fully, the emerging kernel – partially hidden by the leaves at present – will expand and provide another show of colour. Unfortunately, I did not take a note of which this tree this is from. Any arborists (ahem) budding or otherwise out there who can tell me?

IMG_0208

Bursting bud in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Then it started to rain. It looked like a shower, so we sheltered under trees. The one I took cover beside was chamaecyparis lawsoniana aka Lawson’s Cypress and a very impressive tree it was. Looking up – photo below – there appeared to be multiple trunks to this tree, with a plethora of branches appearing further up. Also, look at the all the different colours in the tree trunks. You do not see these colours until you look closely. A magnificent specimen.

IMG_0213

Lawson cypress tree in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

The rain stopped for a while and then we saw the first rhododendrons,  some which were in bud while others had put on their full, glorious display. In the photo below, the blossoms are crowding each other, desperate that their pink flower will be seen by the passers-by. There is an elegant shape to the tree/bush and the pink is shown off to good effect by the greens of the trees behind.

IMG_0215

Rhododendrons at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Closer up, you can see how delicate the rhododendron flowers are. In this photo, the individual cells of the flower are still compact in little pink bells, with the stigma protruding from the circle of anthers in side. Again, there is a complimentary contrast with the beautifully structured green leaves above and below. You can also see the later buds which are still to open.

IMG_0216

Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

At the next rhododendron bush, which was much more low-lying than the one above, I took a close up photo of a flower. The compact bells have gone and the flower is displaying its petals in a flourish, showing off the purple dots and dashes normally hidden and taking the eye away from the attention-seeking stigma.

IMG_0218

Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

When the rain started to pour and the sky was completely grey, we gave up but this brief visit was still memorable and it leaves so much more to see in the next visit.

Crocuses in the snow and Rita Bradd’s poems

March 26, 2018

In many towns and villages in East Lothian at this time of year, the crocuses – planted by East Lothian Council – have emerged, bringing a welcome splash of colour as you walk or drive into the areas. I’ve featured local crocus spreads on the blog before e.g. here. I was biding my time this year until we got the full display of these welcome early spring flowers, but sometimes you have to take an opportunity to photograph something that you are pretty sure will not be there if you come back tomorrow. Recently, we had a brief covering of snow in  Dunbar and we were driving through the next village of West Barns when I saw the crocuses on their bed of snow. It was a bitterly cold day but I got out of the car to capture the scene.

Firstly, the orange crocuses, making a brave show of themselves in the snow. You’ll see in all the photos that the crocuses are keeping their flowers firmly shut. These may be delicate little flowers but they are not daft enough to open up on a freezing cold day in March.

IMG_0180

Crocuses in the snow at West Barns (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Then the white crocuses. It may be that there are more of these plants to come but, as you see in the photo below, the white specimens on show sit by themselves and not in small groups as the orange ones above. Are these more individualistic flowers which like to display their beauty – see the delicate purple lines below the flower heads – on their own, with no competition from others? A search for “crocus” on the RHS  website   produces 695 different types of crocus on 70 pages, so identifying the ones shown here would be a large task – but do not let me stop you.

IMG_0183

White crocuses at West Barns

The purple crocuses below appear at first sight to be of a uniform colour. However, when you look closely, they are all individually marked. Searching for “purple crocus” on the same site reveals the delightfully named crocus tommasinianus, although it is not clear that the ones below fall into this category. The other feature of all the photos is of course the greenery attached to the stem of the plants and this is also very attractive. The sharp leaves are partly hidden by the snow but they reminded me of the wooden stakes that used to be used in medieval battles to trap advancing cavalry and impale the horses on the partially hidden wooden spikes. I cycled past the same spot a day later and the temperature had risen by a few degrees, melting all the snow. Some of the crocuses had opened up, but not many.

IMG_0182

Purple crocuses at West Barns

I have to admit some interest in reviewing Rita Bradd’s book of poems entitled Salt and Soil. Rita is, like me, from Dunbar and lives near the town. Her husband Alan was in my class in school. I am thanked in the Acknowledgements for my advice on publication. I will hope to be as objective as I can. This is a poetry pamphlet – 15 poems in total. In the title poem, there is an intriguing image of photographers on the rocks by the sea “They’re fishing for life at the edge of the world”. There are some fine lyrical lines in many of the poems, such as “Dawn sneaks her breath into seams/ that constrict the day’s fresh garment” from Day Break or “When the North Sea finished throwing up/ over Siccar point..” from Salt of the Earth, My Mother. Not all the poems are successful but there is enough in this wee book to make you appreciate the poet’s obvious talents. Rita Bradd may well not end up as a Poetry Book Society Choice author but very few poets do. If you would like to buy the book, you can order it here.

Salt and Soil

Salt and Soil – poems by Rita Bradd