Archive for the ‘New books’ Category

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

On a recent walk, we left the car at Wester Broomhouse, a farm at the top of a hill from which you can look back over the town of Dunbar. We then walked past Oswald Dean, scene of the first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 and on up towards the foot of Doon Hill, scene of the second Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Doon Hill is also famous for its Dark Age Settlement (good photos) which is worth visiting if you are near Dunbar. Unlike on New Year’s Day  (blog post) our walk did not take us to the summit of the hill, but we walked around the base of the hill and back to Spott Farm.

From the base of the hill, we looked down newly planted tattie (potato) fields. In the first photo below, you can see the elegant, flowing dreels (rows) of potatoes. In Scotland, if someone gets lost or takes a wrong turn or is looking in the wrong place, we might say that s/he is “up the wrong dreel”. I love seeing the smooth bare dreels, as in a short time, little green shaws will start to emerge, grow large and the field will be a mass of green. The brown dreels are like newly-formed and unpainted pottery, admirable in themselves. At the end of the field, you can see the group of houses known as The Doonery and one still has the large chimney, which would have formerly been part of the farm buildings here. When some farm machinery was steam-driven, chimneys were needed. To the right of and above The Doonery, before the sea, is my home town of Dunbar. To the above left, you can see Belhaven Bay (good photos) and the Bass Rock on the other side of the Firth of Forth.

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Looking towards Dunbar and Belhaven Bay from the foot of Doon Hill (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo below, you can see how the farmer has planted groups of tattie dreels side by side. I like the juxtaposition of the dreels going in different directions. I’m sure that there is a practical reason for the farmer doing this e.g. to increase the productivity of the field, but I like to impose some aesthetic quality on to the farmer and imagine that s/he might have seen the artistry in these patterns. The little hump that you can see in the middle/right of the photo, above the dreels and the green fields beyond, is North Berwick Law (good photos).

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Dreels in two directions

Later in our walk, we went through Spott Farm (good photos) which is a  very well maintained farm , with a beautiful clock below a turret on one of the buildings, as well as the magnificent Spott House, with the present façade done in the 1830s. We then went back down past the Doonery, and on the road towards Oswald Dean (known locally as Oasie Dean), we could firstly smell and then see the extensive clumps of wild garlic.

In the first photo below, you can see the emerging flowers which shoot up from the mass of green leaves on the wild garlic plants. Intriguingly, the photo also captures the shadows of the flowers on some of the leaves. Here is a joyous burst of brilliant white amongst the plethora of lush green leaves. The flowers have delicate white petals and thin stems, which are of a more delicate green than the leaves. If you look closely at the middle of the photo, you can see a spider – an industrious web maker seeking live prey which might venture into the garlic.

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

The second photo is a close-up of the spider and the wild garlic flower. Look how the flower head seems to mimic the spider’s legs and how silk-like the nascent web is. When the garlic flowers are fully open, there are swathes of green and white lining the countryside road verges and that, along with the hawthorn bushes and trees breaking into white, transforms the previously dull road edges into rivers of dazzling white.

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Spider and wild garlic

While out on my bike, I listen to downloaded podcasts. I make sure that I can hear the traffic OK while I am listening. So far, my main podcast has been the BBC Radio 4’s Books and Authors. This is made up of two programmes – Open Book which features the mellifluous tones of Mariella Frostrup – and A Good Read which is presented by Harriet Gilbert. The programmes feature new books by a range of authors, as well as two guests discussing books which they recommend to others. More recently, I have been listening to interviews with authors on the The Guardian’s Books Podcast and soon I will be listening to an episode featuring the newly announced winner of the Man International Booker Prize Olga Tokarczuk. The 3rd book podcast certainly worth listening to is from The Free Library of Philadelphia and it features insightful interviews with contemporary authors such as Jesmyn Ward. Another podcast which I found recently is the Irish Times Books Podcast and I enjoyed the interview with Irish writer Adrian McKinty, who was talking about his new novel Rain Dogs which I will buy and read soon.

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A final podcast but not related to books is Death in Ice Valley. This is a fascinating series of podcasts – I have only listened to the first two so far – about the mysterious death of a woman who was found in a remote valley near Bergen in the 1970s. The two reporters look back on the evidence and slowly provide more clues as to who the woman might be and how (or whether) she was murdered. I am hooked, so another episode tomorrow as I tackle some steepish hills on my bike.

 

 

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Snow, stormy sea and His Bloody Project

March 9, 2018

Last week, here in the UK we had what the media were calling “The Beast from the East” (good photos). We have not had sustained snowfall here for about 8 years and the difference this time was that the wind chill was often between -6 and -10 degrees. Around Dunbar, many roads were blocked and delivery lorries could not get through, resulting in a complete absence of milk and bread in the town. Interestingly, from a social point of view, the snow meant that people were not driving their cars, so there was an increase in the number of people walking to the local shops, as opposed to driving to the large supermarket on the edge of town. There was also more social interaction between people walking around, with older people commenting that this was what the High Street used to be like before nearly everybody had a car. My own research into shopping in Dunbar in the 1950s involves interviewing people and many in their 80s and 90s remembered shopping as being – for women mainly – a walking experience. One common misapprehension was that this Siberian type weather was not caused by global warming i.e. global warming was interpreted as the world getting warmer. The fact was that temperatures at the North Pole were above freezing and the cumulative effect of this, plus the direction of the Jet Stream, made it much colder here than normal.

From our back door, the scene looked like this. You can see that the beach is half covered in snow at this moment, but look at the roofs of the houses. The wind was so strong that the snow was continually swept off the roofs. Half an hour later and most of the snow on the beach had been blown away. The sand reappeared and there was only about a yard of snow near the walls.

 

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Snow on the beach in Dunbar (Click to enlarge all photos)

Then the tide came in and what a tide it was. In the photo below, you can see, on the right hand side, the waves crashing over the main wall of Dunbar Harbour in spectacular fashion. This particular wave therefore leapt perhaps 70 feet above sea level. On the left, you can see another leap of spray, this time on to the wall of the East beach. The tide ripped along the side of the wall, covering the road with water. It was mesmerising to watch.

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Stormy sea with waves over Dunbar Harbour and the east beach wall

The next photo shows the incoming tide meeting the remains of the snow on the beach. The photo does not do justice to the tremendous strength and noise of the incoming tide. You can hear tide’s roaring on a wee video I made. It’s unedited and a bit shaky, as I get used to my new camera but you’ll get the (ahem) drift.

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Incoming tide meets snow on the beach in Dunbar

I’ve just finished reading one of the most original and enthralling novels that I’ve come across for a good while. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel, entitled His Bloody Project is rightly described as “fiendishly readable” by The Guardian reviewer. The book has the appearance of a true crime story, as it purports to be based on 19th century documents found in the Scottish highlands. The main “document” is a lengthy confession by Roddy Macrae, 17 years old, that he killed 3 people in the little village of Culduie – a real place. However, no actual murder was committed there in 1869. The novel gives a fascinating insight to the hard lives of the crofters at this time and Roddy’s confession is littered with local words, for which the author provides a glossary – another sign that this may be a “real” crime story. Words such as croman  and flaughter are used for tools used by crofters. Another telling social aspect of the novel is the attitude of some people, such as the local minister and the Edinburgh reporter at Roddy Macrae’s trial, to the crofters who are seen as uncivilised and prone to violence. The book is neatly divided up into eye-witness accounts, the confession, a section on contemporary views of insanity, the trial and an epilogue. What we see early on is that there are a number of unreliable narrators, including young Macrae. As one reviewer noted, this is not a crime novel, but a novel with a crime as its centrepiece. It’s very well written and a compulsive read. Buy it.

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SWLA exhibition in Aberlady and Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy”.

March 1, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, is a stunner. The quality bar has been raised for this exhibition as it is organised by the Society of Wildlife Artists and contains an outstanding selection of paintings by the cream of British wildlife artists. I chose to contact two of the artists which I have not featured here on the blog and they both responded immediately, sending me samples of their work at the exhibition. Firstly, Brin Edwards is a painter, illustrator and teacher who is based in Suffolk. In the first painting below, your eye firstly goes to the brilliant range of colours – of the different parts of the ducks, of the water and of the vegetation. Then you see the various patterns on the ducks’ feathers and in the water. This is a group of individual wigeon, which have the delightful scientific name of Anas Penelope. Each bird has its own slightly different colour and feather pattern but, as you can see by the open beaks and staring eyes, they are definitely interacting. This painting really does stand out in the exhibition and shows the artist’s superb technique in capturing the colour and the movement of the ducks.

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Wigeon Interactions by Brin Edwards (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting by Brin Edwards below, we see the artist taking a different approach. When you first see this painting, it is the blossom and branches that catch your eye, as they are depicted in a bright but slightly hazy manner. Then you see the bird, with its sharp features and looking happy to be camouflaged by the foliage behind it. The Pied Flycatcher, which has the less romantic  scientific name Ficedula hypleuca, and comes to the UK in the summer, is shown here in what is an almost abstract setting, as if the viewer is looking through gauze. It is a startling effect and makes you look closer. The two selected paintings from the exhibition show what a high quality artist Brin Edwards undoubtedly is.

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Spring Pied Flycatcher by Brin Edwards

The second artist I chose was Richard Johnson, originally from the north east of England and now based in Cambridge. He is a bird painter and book illustrator. The first Johnson painting below shows that he is a more naturalistic painter of birds than Brin Edwards, so has a different approach. You cannot compare the two artists’ style i.e. one is not better than the other. What you can say is that Richard Johnson’s paintings show the same high level artistry as that of his fellow SWLA member. This watercolour is of a male cuckoo, with the amusing sounding scientific name of cuculus canorus. It is an intriguing painting, as there appears to be some motion on the bird’s part. Has it just landed or is it about to take off? Johnson has a great ability to show the detail of the cuckoo’s feathers, with their contrasting patterns and I liked the way that the tail feathers were shown as sharp-pointed to the right and fan-like to the left. You also have to admire the colours, shapes and patterns in the branches and tree trunk next to the bird. There’s a mesmerising entanglement here and it is to the artist’s credit that he draws our eye to the detail of the woodland setting.

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Richard Johnson Male Cuckoo

The second painting is of a broad-billed sandpiper aka Limicola falcinellus. At first, this looks a simple painting but this view is to underestimate Richard Johnson’s ability to draw our eye to the lines – dotted and straight – in the painting. Everything is sharp about this sandpiper – the beak, what looks like a shaved line on its forehead which some modern footballers have, the flowing marks on its breast and the neatly constructed feathers. The back of the bird reminded me of a shell e.g. on a tortoise or armadillo. The thin but sturdy looking legs again suggest movement and there is concentration in that keen eye. Richard Johnson’s birds show his amazing skills and will always delight the viewer.

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Richard Johnson Broad-billed Sandpiper

This really is a must-see exhibition, so please spread the word and if you are anywhere near East Lothian, make your way to Waterston House and be amazed and delighted.

Sasha Dugdale’s book of poems Joy is the latest PBS Choice. The title poem Joy features Catherine, the widow of the poem William Blake. She is distressed by his death and feels isolated. Her memories are more positive and she remembers “The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking./ I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy/ I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god”. This long poem is presented as if Catherine is sitting on a stage, giving a monologue. She is angry at her husband for dying – “What right did you have? …. And here I am. Your helpmate… your Kate … Bonded to nothing./ How I ache, how I ache”. The poem is a powerful reflection on her marriage and how she feels abandoned by those who once feted her husband. Despite the book’s title, many of the poems involve people looking on the dark side of life. In Canoe, the people who set out on the canoe are never seen again and there houses are vandalised. Dugdale has some striking images  e.g. “.. there was nothing to see except white fog/ and the white sun which reflected itself in every droplet”. In Kittiwake, the poet begins “Your jizz, little gull is the traveller’s / jizz, the wanderer, who sees the black, flecked ocean/ barren like the steppe”. In this context, jizz is a birding term for the characteristic of a bird. This is an intriguing books of poetry and highly recommended by the PBS and by me.

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Joy by Sasha Dugdale, PBS Choice

The kittiwake poem neatly gives me an excuse to repost a couple of photos of kittiwakes nesting on the walls of Dunbar Castle (good photos).

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Kittiwakes at Dunbar Castle

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Kittiwake family at Dunbar Castle

T S Eliot Prize readings and Inside the V&A

January 18, 2018

We are just back from a long weekend in and near London. On Sunday evening, I went to the Southbank Centre at the Royal Festival Hall for the annual T S Eliot Prize readings. The ten shortlisted poets are each allocated 8 minutes to read from their book published in 2017. The evening is hosted by the inimitable Ian McMillan who, before introducing the poets, launched into a very funny riff on how people were trying to get him to leave poetry for prose e.g. he had been offered 350 million words a week to leave poetry. For those outside the UK, this was a take-off of the truly awful  leave campaign in the referendum in 2016. This event is both a collective and a personal experience, as each poet comes to the stand and reads maybe 3 or 4 poems. The collective clap and then each persons listens as if the poem is addressed to them personally. There were a range of delivery styles on show, as some read their work carefully and slowly, while others recited by heart and produced lively performances, such as Caroline Bird (check Performances). A poet I’ve long admired is Douglas Dunn, now 75 years old and his classic book Elegies, which was published in 1985 was a moving evocation of his wife’s dying. Dunn recited Cognitive Disorders in which he described seeing  “.. the snails on their silky pilgrimage / Over the slippery slabs of a garden path./ I’ve heard ants’ martial marching songs/Their tiny tambourines, trumpets and gongs. Too-whoos of the nocturnal polymath”. Although the ten poets all read their poems, no winner is announced. This is not some TV show at the end of which one of the presenters looks deadly serious and tells us what we already know – there can only be one winner – and then proceeds to announce the winner only after an annoyingly long pause, which is supposed to increase the tension but only induces yawns amongst viewers. The winner was announced the following day and it was Ocean Vuong with his book Night Sky with Exit Wounds . His performance had the audience gripped with the intensity of his reading. One of the poems he read was the intriguingly titled “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong” including “Ocean,/ are you listening? The most beautiful part/ of your body is wherever/ your mother’s shadow falls”. Chair of the judging panel stated that Vuong’s book “.. deals with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations. It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice.”

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Winner of the T S Eliot Prize 2017 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum is always rewarding. In fact, you could spend most of the rest of your life going around the museum and always finding something new. The hanging sculpture at the entrance (below) quickly catches your eye. This radiant splash of colour and anarchic shapes contrasts with the more traditional – yet magnificent – dome above.

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Sculpture at the entrance to the V&A.

Just along from the main desk is the room containing material from the “Medieval and Renaissance [period] 1350-1600”. What strikes you first when you enter the room is the vast array of sculptures on show, but then your eye goes upward to the very modern ceiling with its row of tubes and the line of central windows which let the natural light flood the exhibits.

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Medieval and Renaissance room at the V&A

I wandered through the Europe 1600 to 1815 galleries, which are one of my favourite places to visit in the V&A, and I came across a new creation – The Globe (check out the video). Sitting inside The Globe (photo below) is like being in a wooden igloo, with gaps, and your eye is drawn around the smooth wooden walls and up to the central hole in the “ceiling”. It’s very peaceful to sit and appreciate this beautiful creation. One of the curator’s comments is “The structure refers to several images from the Age of Reason. It can be viewed variously as a hemispherical map of the world, a bookcase, an interior from a great library classifying all human knowledge, a symbol of the universe, or an architectural model”. So, despite this being a 2015 installation, it fits in well with the 1600-1815 objects on display in the various rooms. I thought it was a brilliant idea, creation and space.

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The Globe at the V&A in London

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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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.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.