Archive for the ‘New books’ Category

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.

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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.

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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Inside The Bow Bar, Edinburgh