Archive for the ‘New books’ Category

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

Szalay

In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

IMG_2118

House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

IMG_2131

Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

IMG_2133

Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

IMG_2138

Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

IMG_2143

Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Advertisements

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

lost words

New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

IMG_2073

Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

IMG_2103

The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

IMG_2100

Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Colson Whitehead is a new author to me but on the basis of this book, I’ll be trying more. The Underground Railroad has won many awards, including the famous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel begins on a slave plantation in Georgia with one particularly sadistic brother in charge. The heroine Cora knows that her mother escaped the plantation and abandoned her as a child. Cora has no intention of trying to escape but is persuaded to do so by Caesar. The horrors of slave life – constant hard work, poor conditions and regular beatings – are well described in a series of incidents. Whitehead is an excellent storyteller but, as the Guardian reviewer points out, other novels have covered this ground. What makes this novel unique – and this is no spoiler – is that the author takes the well known escape routes for slaves, known as the underground railroad and transforms it from a series of safe houses into an actual underground railroad, with tracks, stations and locomotives . So we are asked to follow the author’s leap of imagination and this is not difficult as Whitehead is such an accomplished writer. The novel then focuses on both those who seek to help Cora, liberal whites as well as former slaves, and on those who wish to capture Cora and take her back to the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway is a key character in the novel and Whitehead manages not to demonise him, despite his gruesome occupation. Ridgeway views the world in an uncomplicated manner “It is what it is” he says e.g. slavery exists and different people make money from it. The novel ends on a hopeful note although the reader does feel that there is no guarantee about Cora’s future. This is a novel which is harrowing at times, but you are driven along by Whitehead’s excellent narrative which often has you on the edge of your seat. The Underground Railroad is a passionate and imaginative novel so go out and buy it immediately. You can hear/download an interesting interview with the author here (left hand column).

Underground

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Click to enlarge all photos)

 

At the end of summer, we often get changeable weather and this is accompanied by a variety of cloud formations in the evening. Last week, looking out from the back of our house, we noticed an interesting light on the sea. Normally, it is when the moon is full and over the sea, or the setting sun casts its light. On both occasions, there is what appears to be  a silver (moon) or a golden (sun) pathway across the water, as in the photo below. In this photo however, the sun was not yet setting and this view looks north, with the sun at this point in the west.

IMG_1877

Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

So, first the light, then the cloud formation itself in the photo below. This appears to be a nuclear explosion or a volcanic eruption in the sky, and the many shades of blue on display was impressive. There’s a white castle in the middle and monster racing dolphins underneath. Otherwise, it’s a piece of abstract art representing the chaos in the world now, or what the end of our known world (or its beginning) might look like. That’s what I saw, what do you see?

IMG_1879

Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

Turning my attention west to the town of Dunbar itself, there was also an interesting formation of clouds above the town, in the photo below. Here, the clouds are in more anarchic mood, splitting up and diving off in different directions. It was one of these evening when you looked at the clouds, turned round to look north, and when you turned back the shapes had changed, as had the colours. A wonderful sight.

IMG_1880

Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

IMG_20170828_151926

Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

Ford

Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

IMG_1803

Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

IMG_1808

Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

IMG_1816

Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

IMG_1818

Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

IMG_1827

Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

Edinburgh International Book Festival and The Bow Bar

August 25, 2017

It’s the same every year, I’m afraid. I get the catalogue for the Edinburgh International Book Festival about a month before the tickets go on sale. I go through it and mark the ones I’d like to go and see. Then I forget all about it. In the blink of an eye, it’s six weeks later and I’m reading about an author who will be appearing at the festival. I check up and – you guessed it – all the authors I was hoping to see are sold out. I was in town yesterday for lunch with my pal and I went along to the festival at Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. The book festival is thronged with people of all ages, as retirees peruse the bookshelves at their leisure, side by side with uniformed schools students of both genders, who appear to be in more of a hurry. At the entrance, classes of primary school children make a chatterbox entrance, lining up in pairs, with a teacher at the front and back of the bendy, snake-like body of kids.

IMG_20170822_104143

Entrance to the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Click to enlarge all photos)

Once inside, you see an open space with tables where people sit and read or talk about books. Around this, there are a series of marquees which host the talks by authors. If I had been alert (and early) enough to get tickets, I would have gone to see Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, Stuart MacBride , Bernard McLaverty, and Coulson Whitehead. There’s also a large bookshop and browsing the shelves, I came across a book by one of my favourite authors – Richard Ford – of which I’d never heard.

IMG_20170822_110810

Richard Ford books amongst others

It’s a 1981 novel, entitled The Ultimate Good Luck and I’m looking forward to reading it. One of my favourite phrases from Ford’s novels is “the normal, applauseless life of us all”, a reflection by Frank Bascombe, Ford’s brilliantly enduring character. There is still over a week to go of the book festival, so I might get lucky and hear an author who intrigues me.

IMG_20170822_110949

Richard Ford’s 1981 novel

And so to lunch, (via the National Library of Scotland for a wee bit of research) at The Last Drop in Edinburgh’s famous Grassmarket. The pub’s name refers to the last hanging in the area. Nowadays, people go there to eat, drink, indulge in gallows humour and catch up on all the noose. From there, we went to the zenith of real ale pubs in Edinburgh (and most other places) The Bow Bar.

This is an enchanting pub, partly for its array of old mirrors and signs advertising beer, whisky and cigarettes from past ages, partly for its unreconstructed interior, but mostly for the excellent range of beers it offers and the knowledgeable and friendly staff who serve you. The first photo, which I took, shows different beers and whiskies, and while some e.g. Boddingtons are still with us, Mackay’s Edinburgh Pale is long gone.

IMG_20170822_134920

On the walls of the Bow Bar, Edinburgh (mobile camera photo)

I gained permission of The Bow Bar’s staff to download two photos from their website. The first shows the sign outside the pub, with drayman, his horse and beer barrels on the cart. The bar is in the intriguingly named West Bow where one of the city’s medieval gates would have been.

Bow Bar 2

Bow Bar sign

The second photo shows the inside of the pub. No modern, cushioned seats, plain wooden tables and hard chairs – the clientele love its traditional (do NOT say old-fashioned) décor. If you are a whisky enthusiast, then the 300+ malt whiskies on display will make you think that you’ve found nirvana. For us real ale drinkers, this pub is fantastic as I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same selection of beers on offer. On this visit, we had pints of Odyssey which is brewed in the bonnie village of Kippen (good photos) in Stirlingshire. The bar staff here are very up to date with where the beers come from, what they taste like (and they’ll always offer you a wee taste) and how they compare to others. I commented to the young woman behind the bar that there was an album that came out before she was born – Odyssey and Oracle by The Zombies. To my delight, she had heard of both the LP and the group. Some things just endure. If you are ever in Edinburgh, The Bow Bar is a must-visit.

Bow Bar 1

Inside The Bow Bar, Edinburgh

 

The Millihelen and seafood dinner on Lifeboat Day

August 18, 2017

The new Choice book from the Poetry Book Society is On Balance by Sinead Morrissey and the book opens with an outstanding poem. You can read the poem here and listen to the poet reading it here (video). I first read the poem without having seen the Notes at the back of the volume. We are told by the poet that a Millihelen is ” the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship” – a brilliant concept. The poem is about the launch of The Titanic (YouTube with photos of actual launch) in Belfast in 1911. The poem begins:

“It never looks warm or properly daytime
in black-and-white photographs the sheer cliff-
face of the ship still enveloped in its scaffolding
backside against the launching cradle
ladies lining the quay in their layered drapery
touching their gloves to their lips”
There is no punctuation in the poem but you soon get into its rhythm and appreciate the images and the poet’s view of what certain images  portray e.g. in the black and white photos, it’s not “properly daytime”. There is superb movement to the poem which mimics the launch of the ship:

 

“….. it starts
grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts
moving starts slippery-sliding down
slow as a snail at first in its viscous passage
taking on slither and speed gathering in
the Atlas-capable weight of its own momentum”
The deluge of images continues as the ship is an “iron palace”, the snail has a “viscous passage” and the ship is “Atlas-capable”. You need to read this poem a number of times to appreciate the density of the images and to imagine the ship sliding into the water through the eyes of the poet, who notes that, once in the water,
“the ships sits back in the sea
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly”
So this magnificent piece of engineering becomes “ordinary”-like once it regains its balance in water. What an amazing start to a book of poems. I’m still reading it and will return to it.
Morrissey

On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge)

I’ve been saving this one up since last month. Our older son came down to Dunbar for his birthday. We were hoping to go the wonderful Creel Restaurant but couldn’t get in, so we decided on a seafood dinner as it was a sunny day and we could eat outside. Earlier in the day, the annual Lifeboat Fete took place at a packed harbour. As we sat having our dinner, we could see the lifeboat out at sea, along with a coastguard helicopter. Unknown to us, a diver had gone missing in a wreck off the coast. As far as our meal was concerned, we had (photo below) smoked salmon, dressed crab and smoked mackerel pâté ,with lemon segments and salad for starters.

IMG_1732

Seafood starters

 We also had some fresh langoustines. I always think that shellfish like this are very fiddly and a lot of work for what you end up with, but these  were very tasty, as well as being colourful. These oddly shaped creatures with their rows of pink false teeth under the claws and their gnarled, ridge-backed, curled up bodies are a strange mixture of angles and curves.

 

IMG_1733

Fresh langoustines

For main course, our son cooked a whole sea bream in the oven and we had whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from our local trout farm shop with peaches and salad.
IMG_1735

Whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from Belhaven Smokehouse

All this accompanied by a delicious Provençal rosé, so a touch of luxury on a warm and sunny evening. When your luck’s in, it’s in.
IMG_1734

Dinner for three on a summer’s evening

Aberdeen trip and James Sheard’s Blackthorn

June 29, 2017

We went  to Aberdeen recently to see our nephew before his graduation from Aberdeen University. We stayed at the excellent Chesters Hotel where we had a superb (but pricey) meal in the evening at their 1X restaurant. My starter was ravioli of crab and scallop, with celeriac puree, shellfish bisque and langoustine beignet. It was the beignet that I didn’t know about but it turned out to be a small prawn done in a very light batter. It was very well presented – alas no photo – with both the ravioli and the bisque being light and tasty. It looked like the one pictured here. Earlier in the day, we went to the extensive Hazlehead Park and were particularly impressed firstly with the range of rhododendrons on show.  There were several different colours with a pink one shown below. My new mobile phone has a better camera than my last one, which came to a watery end when I was out cycling and got soaked. The phone was uncovered and basically drowned. The man at the phone repair shop took one look at it and told me to buy a new one. Although the camera is better, it is not good at close-up shots but not bad from a short distance as the photos below will show. As you guessed, it’s not an expensive phone.

IMG_20170617_164050

Rhododendrons in Hazlehead Park (Click to enlarge)

We then went into the huge rose garden and although not many of the roses were in bloom, there were some stunning examples, such as these shown below. There is a lack of clarity here (mobile phone) but the colours and the delicate folds of the rose are remarkable.

IMG_20170617_165048

Hazlehead Park rose

IMG_20170617_165251

Hazlehead Park rose

In the first section of the rose garden, there is a large memorial to those who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha Disaster in the North Sea in 1988. The memorial lists those who died and the sculpture shows three oil rig workers. The figures look as if they may be calling for help and many visitors may recall the horror of the photos of the oil rig on fire. The contrast with the beauty and calm of the rose garden and the disaster is  poignant.

IMG_20170617_164859

Piper Alpha Disaster memorial in Hazlehead Park

James Sheard’s collection The Abandoned Settlements is a Poetry Book Society Choice and therefore highly rated. I thought that the early poems, which harked back to different places and different people were very well constructed and poignant. The title poem ends “For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists” and this turns out to be the theme of the book, a series of reflections and memories of love and lovers, of beginnings and endings. I enjoyed November which begins “Let me tell you how, in this long dark/ I list the ways in which the leaf of you/ furled and unfurled around me”.  However, as the book progressed, I as the reader could only take so many doleful reflections on love gone bad, no matter how elegant the poems were and how well constructed they were. Others obviously disagree and he has been widely praised. One poem that I did connect with and which was to me the most lyrical poem in the book is entitled Blackthorn: “For two weeks I drove/ through tunnels/ of March blackthorn/ … and liquid growing white/ then full then falling/ in the wind rising/ each overnight and becoming bridal/ blizzarding across/ the quiet early morning/ whipped up by my wheels …”. Last year in this blog, I mistakenly identified blackthorn as hawthorn, with these photos below. You can see the link with “becoming bridal”.

IMG_0276

Blackthorn near Stenton village

IMG_0274

Close up of blackthorn blossom

 

Surgeons as writers and Americana by Ray Davies

May 9, 2017

The Saturday edition of The Guardian comes through the letter box and thumps on the floor, as it contains a variety of sections – the main paper, sport, review, travel, family and food. I keep the Review section  for Sunday mornings and I enjoy reading the main article, as well as the non-fiction, fiction and poetry book reviews. On Saturday, the main article was by William Boyd and entitled “A matter of life and death: The rise of the surgeon memoir”.  In the article, Boyd looks at the works of surgeons such as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Gabriel Weston. Gawande’s Complications describe what Boyd calls “significant” procedures e.g. “We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen”. Boyd quotes Gabriel (in Direct Red) “We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.” Boyd then goes on to wonder “.. how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being”. The author is obviously enthralled by surgeons and notes that he happens to know four surgeons with international reputations and he elicits from one of them, Brendan Moran, what is need to become a top surgeon – a lack of squeamishness, strength, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an interesting article, with some detailed outlines of procedures that some people e.g. the squeamish, may wish to avoid, and it gives an insight into the working lives of top surgeons. I also found it a rather obsequious article in that Boyd seems to think that because these top surgeons are making life and death decisions (and they admit to making good and bad decisions), they must be on a higher plane than other professions and he finishes by referring to “the extraordinary profession they [surgeons] share and the phenomenal life they lead”. This raises the question of whether Boyd should be so amazed by the surgeon/writers. Would Boyd be so in awe of top researchers who have made major discoveries in science, medicine, history, psychology or chemistry i.e. people who have no physical contact with others? I think not and perhaps society as a whole has tended to treat people in the  medical profession (mainly doctors) as being cleverer than the rest of us. A surgeon has great responsibility but so has a bus driver or train driver or airline pilot. Read the article and see what you think.

images

Direct Red by Gabriel Weston

I don’t buy much music these days but, having heard Ray Davies’ new album on Spotify, I bought it today.

Scan_20170508

Americana by Ray Davies

Ray Davies has always been more than just a writer of pop songs. In his days with The Kinks, Davies wrote songs with a socially cutting edge e.g. Dead End Street (YouTube link) – “Out of work and got no money/ Sunday joint of bread and honey” or Lola  (YouTube link) about a young boy meeting a transvestite in a club. The new album also has a cutting edge and is based on Davies’ time in America – with The Kinks in the 1960s and 1970s, but also on more recent visits. The recurrent theme in the album is The Great Highway, both in the physical sense of travelling on the roads in the USA, but also life as a journey. There are many intriguing tracks on the album and almost all demonstrate Davies’ critical look at modern society, particularly in the USA, but also globally. In Poetry, he sings ” .. the great corporations providing our every need/And those big neon signs telling us what to eat” but he asks “Where is the poetry?” in the blandness of shopping malls and other aspects of today’s society. In A Long Drive Home To Tarzana, he finds that “.. there’s nothing there except/that space/ Beautiful space” and this seems to be the dream, to be away from the crowded cities. Davies is accompanied by the fabulous Jayhawks band, including Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies to great effect. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear echoes of the Beatles in some tracks and Neil Young in others. In the first track, which you can listen to here (YouTube), the first lines are “I wanna make my home/Where the buffalo roam”. In Neil Young’s Far From Home (YouTube), the chorus starts “Bury me out on the prairie/Where the buffalo used to roam”. So, a superb album of country/rock with Davies’ ironic lyrics adding to some wonderful tunes.

No blog next week, as we are off to Bordeaux for a week’s holiday.

 

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

IMG_1322

Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

IMG_1305

Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

IMG_1310

Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2016 was Alice Oswald’s  new book – Falling Awake. This is an astonishing book of poems and has won some literary prizes. In the book, Oswald is not just close to nature, but inside it, and she demonstrates how elements of nature are interlinked, and how nature affects our lives , but also has a life of its own. The first poem A Short Story of Falling begins “It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again/ it is the secret of a summer shower/ to steal the light and hide it in a flower”. These dramatic images – a shower stealing the light – continue in all the poems. In Fox, the narrator hears ” a cough” in her sleep and it is ” a fox in her fox-fur/ stepping across/ the grass in her black gloves/ [which] barked at my house”. In other poems, we hear of a badger “still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted” being “hard at work/ with the living shovel of himself”. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew”, there’s an amazing image of water on a plant, as the poet imagines the dew “descend/ out of the dawn’s mind”, and affix “a liquid cufflink” on to a leaf. In Shadow, the poet describes the shadow as having ” a flesh parachute of a human opening above it” – as you see, there’s a vivid imagination at work here. There are many more images of falling in the subsequent poems. I’m only half way through the book and will return to it in the blog. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that “I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity”.

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707

“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

This week, we’ve had cold, but very bright days, especially in the morning. Having cycled past Seafield Pond (good photos) on Monday and seen a gathering of ducks on the grass verge, I ventured back there on foot on Tuesday – in the morning sunlight. The ducks were gone, but over the wall on Belhaven Beach, there was a scattering of seagulls, some oystercatchers and curlews, but also 2 little egrets (photos, video and bird call). As I got my camera ready, there was a sudden squawking, a brief flurry of wings by both birds, and one took off for the pond. I managed to get two photos of the constantly moving little egret. They are not the clearest of photos and maybe, I should have used a sports setting on my camera. However, they do show the elegance of this bird, with its long beak, tiny eye and large yellow feet, which help them to steady themselves on the slippery sand below the water.

img_1258

Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

In second photo, I like the shimmering reflection of the bird’s body in the water, its shadow (with flesh parachute of a bird opening above it, as Oswald might have put it) and the corrugated sand.

img_1279

Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

While the egrets and oystercatchers are nervous birds and will fly off if you get anywhere near them, the swans on Seafield Pond simply float towards you. OK – they are looking for food, but I also think that swans are narcissistic birds. They glide toward you, inviting you to photograph their haughty serenity. They move slowly, like elegant models on a catwalk, then dip their heads in the water. The first photo shows 2 swans coming towards the bank, where I’m standing at the water’s edge. There are other birds, such as coots, but these have swum away in panic and have hidden behind the tall reeds (2nd photo). See the causal elegance here, with the swans more interested in their own reflections than the presence of a would-be photographer.

img_1263

Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

img_1267

Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

The first swan pushed its head under water a few times and after several attempts, I managed to get a shot with water dripping from its beak. Look at the perfect outline of its body, the giraffe like neck and its body like a small iceberg. You can watch swans all day.

img_1270

Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond