Archive for the ‘New books’ Category

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

March 17, 2017

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

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

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

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

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

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

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

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

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“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

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

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Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

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

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Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

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

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Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

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Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

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

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Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond

V&A exhibition and TS Eliot Prize readings

January 19, 2017

A delay in the blog this week as we were in London for a few days. We both went to the outstanding Victoria and Albert Museum to see the exhibition entitled You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 . This is a fascinating exhibition, particularly for people who remember the 1960s and the bands such as The Beatles, The Animals and The Who, amongst many others. When you go into the exhibition, there is a free audio provided. This is not your usual audio guide to exhibits, but is a soundtrack  (list of songs here)of the music of the middle and late 1960s. Some people found this distracting e.g. looking at John  Lennon’s written lyrics to Help while the soundtrack is playing Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction. The exhibition covers the 1960s revolutions in music, protest, fashion and consumption. It has a vast number of exhibits, perhaps too many to take in during one visit, including photographs, letters, TV coverage, film, clothes and consumer items. It is a very stimulating exhibition, taking in the trivialities of some pop music to the horrors of the Vietnam war and civil rights violence. The V&A of course is always a pleasure to visit, with its numerous rooms and hallways full of statues. Even if you only visit the ornately decorated tea room (good photos), with the William Morris room adjacent to it, you are assured a superb aesthetic experience. No photos were allowed in the exhibition but I took one on my mobile phone’s (not very good) camera of the entrance.

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The Beatles’ at the entrance to the V&A

My treat on Sunday evening was to go to the Royal Festival Hall for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize readings. The competition for the best collection is worth £20,000 to the winner. One of the best things about this event is that, while the 10 poets read from their collections, the winner is not announced until later – no annoying Masterchef  pauses here. The readings were compered by the irrepressible Ian McMillan whose amusing but very perceptive introductions to each poet added much to the occasion. In one introduction, he referred to his Uncle Harry who had “sticky-out false teeth  – like a pub piano”. He also summed up the quality of the evening by pointing out that despite the vast hall and the hundreds of people in the audience, when each poet spoke, it was like being in a small room with only a few people. Two of the poets, J O Morgan and Alice Oswald (the favourite to win) recited their poems from memory and made a substantial impact on the audience. The winner, announced on Monday, was Jacob Polley’s collection Jackself which the judges called “a firecracker of a book” in which the main character can change into different shapes and things. I intend to buy this book, so more on this later.

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Jacob Polley’s collection entitled Jackself

 

 

Lisa Hooper exhibition and Milan (1)

October 14, 2016

It’s 2 years and 11 days ago since I posted a review of an exhibition by the artist Lisa Hooper. Interestingly, Lisa calls herself “a printmaker, specialising in wildlife/bird art” and I’m sure we could have a long conversation about whether she is primarily an artist (her talent, her chosen profession) who uses print techniques or a printmaker (her craft and an aspect of her chosen profession) who produces works of art. I recognise that I may be belittling printmakers here – not the intention. Lisa’s new exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, HQ of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club is an outstanding collection of prints, mainly of birds but it also includes some rural landscapes. I contacted Lisa and she kindly sent me examples of her work, shown below. What attracts me to these prints are the shapes and the patterns which the artist/printmaker produces to such telling effect. When you first look at a Lisa Hooper work, you can see that there are a series of patterns which are repeated. However, when you pay more attention, you see that the patterns (and indeed the shapes within the patterns) are not exactly repeated. The first print below portrays my favourite birds – curlews. I’m lucky enough to live by the sea in Dunbar and I can watch the curlews land on the rocks through my scope. Curlews have a great ability to poke their beaks under stones and seaweed to feed. What I particularly like about this work is that the beaks have been slightly exaggerated by the artist and are black. This gives an abstract quality to the work and I think that it makes the curlews look even more magisterial than they are in real life. I also admire the way that the artist has reflected the shapes of the birds in the rocks on which they stand.

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Curlew by Lisa Hooper

The second example of Lisa Hooper’s work shown below is her impression of a short eared owl. This bird has eyes to make small mammals shiver and humans to note the presence of a fierce intelligence. Again, the shapes are exquisite and intriguing, individual but collective, both in the bird and in the representation of the stone wall behind. I also think that there’s a surreal quality to this print – the black round the eyes, the misshapen nose and the stripes on the head.

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Short Eared Owl by Lisa Hooper

Two years ago, my wife bought me Lisa Hooper’s book First Impressions for my upcoming birthday and last week, while at the exhibition, my wife bought me Lisa’s new book  Printing Wildlife. So I’m looking forward to putting the new book on my little easel and turning a page every day. If you are able to get to this exhibition, you cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of the work on show here. Lisa Hooper’s prints should be viewed and then looked at more closely.

My pal Roger and I make an annual trip to a European city to see a top class football (aka soccer) match, to see the sights and enjoy the food and wine in the restaurants. This year, we went to the impressive city of Milan, with its wide streets, stunning piazzas with elegant statues, monumental architecture in the cathedral and many churches, and balconied buildings. We went to an excellent match where A C Milan won 4-3 against Sassuolo in the magnificent San Siro Stadium (scroll down for photos). Milan, as other cities, is best seen by walking through the streets, laid out on a grid system. On many occasions, you look up (as you should always do in cities) to see statues on the buildings, like this one near the arch in Porta Venezia, one of the gates into this formerly walled city.

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Statues in Milan’ Porta Venezia

The most famous building in Milan and the one to which tourists throng in their thousands, is the Duomo (good photos) – the breath-taking cathedral in the city centre. There are always long queues, so it is better to book online in advance, which we failed to do, so no inside view. The Duomo sits in a large square and you are reminded of St Mark’s Square in Venice. The cathedral is so big that you need to walk around it to appreciate its true size. When it was being built in the 14th and 15th centuries, the peasants living in the area nearby would have been amazed to see this huge structure rise from the ground. The Duomo would have been hundreds of times the size of the peasants’ houses and it would have struck awe and fear into the local population. The two photos below show this multi-spired, multi-statued work of architecture/art which remains an inspiring sight today for people who take a religious or a secular view of life.

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The Duomo in Milan

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The Duomo in Milan

Just off the square is the Gallery Vittorio Emanuele which was built in 1877 and named after a king of Italy. It has a striking glass roof, beautiful murals and a wonderful mosaic floor. It now houses upmarket shops, cafes, a hotel and the very helpful Milan Tourist Office. The photos below show the entrance and interior of the Gallery. This area is always crowded with tourists but it is certainly worth seeing.

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Arched entrance to Galleria Vittore Emanuele

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Murals in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

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Balcony, statues and mural in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

Poppies poem and Dunbar High Street in the 1950s

June 18, 2016

I’m working my way through this year’s Forward Book of Poetry and of course, as this is a selection of some of the best poems published in the UK and Ireland in 2014/15, there are many superb poems. I limit myself to reading 3 poems each day. Today, a poem leapt out and demanded that I read it three times and review it on this blog. The poem is Poppies in Translation by Sujata Bhatt and as the poppies are out in may garden, it’s topical. The poem starts “You tell us how in Romanian,/ the wild poppies growing everywhere/ are a living flame of love” (poet’s italics). The poet sees poppies as “a wildfire/by the roads” and in the countryside around here, you often see lines of poppies edging the road. “Wildfire” is apt description. The poem continues with the poet able to “simply feel/ the way their wild redness/ burns and reels” and she relates this to the fire of first love. Describing the poppies’ texture, the poet writes “I have seen crepe de chine, chiffon,/ how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” – an imaginative view of poppies apparently made of silk. Another striking image comes next “They could be Hindu brides,/ ripening in their red saris”. The poet goes on to argue that while in Romanian, poppies are seen as “a living flame of love”, in English the word “love” would not be used. Instead “In English, we say the poppies speak to us” and it is “their call that moves us”. This is an interesting interpretation, so the next time you see a vibrantly red poppy, is it calling to you or is it reminding you of first love – or something else? I’m an inveterate photographer of poppies especially the inside of the flower, what Bhatt calls “whorls of black filaments” and here are two examples. Inside the first one looks like a sea anemone and inside the 2nd one looks like a small tarantula.

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Poppy flower head

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Poppy flower head

I’m on a Facebook site called Lost Dunbar which deals with the history of my home town. I was always a reluctant Facebook member and I only use the site for my research i.e. I have turned down many requests to be friends, not because I don’t like the requestors but because I don’t have time to look at any more than the Lost Dunbar site. Recently, people have been posting pictures of Dunbar High Street in the 1950s and my local history research deals with the early 1950s period. The first photo below – click on photo to enlarge it – is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows shops that are no longer there such as Nelson’s the grocer’s (as it was always called). Secondly the cars on the street would now be vintage cars. The most interesting aspect of this photo is the appearance of the message bikes, the one on the bottom left is emerging probably from Lipton’s shop on the corner and has boxes on it. In Scotland, shopping is often referred to as going for the messages with messages meaning the good bought while shopping. Thus delivery bikes were called message bikes and those on the bikes were called message boys. I was a message boy for the Buttercup Dairy shop in the High Street when I was 12/13 years old.

Dunbar High Street 1950s

Dunbar High Street 1950s

In the second photo, what is most striking is the absence of cars on the High Street. Today, it is very difficult to park at any time on this same street. In the early 1950s, very few people owned a car in Britain – only 7% overall and in working class areas, this would have been much less. It may be hard for people today to understand but many people in the early 1950s had no expectation of travelling in a car, never mind owning one. Cars were very expensive and owned only by business or professional people or farmers in the Dunbar area. In my new book, there is a chapter on how people travelled in 1950 to see the whales stranded near Dunbar and one of the most interesting interviews I did was with a man who was 6 years old at the time and was taken to see the whales in the farmer’s car. He told me that going in the car – the farmer’s car! – was even more exciting than seeing the 147 whales on the beach, as they saw very few cars near the farm where his father worked.

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High Street Dunbar 1950s

My new book

May 20, 2016

This post is all about my new book entitled STRANDED: The Whales at Thorntonloch in 1950. The Stories of the People who were there. A couple of years ago, I started an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, with a view to interviewing people about shops and shopping in that era. Once I did some initial reading around the early 1950s, I realised that there were other topics I could pursue, and these included rationing (which ended in 1954) and the building of new council houses (where I was brought up) between 1949 and 1953. I was chatting with Gordon Easingwood, the chair of Dunbar and District History Society when he said “Oh 1950? That was the year of the whales”. I’d never heard of anything to do with whales in 1950, so I pursued the topic and found that 147 pilot whales had been stranded at Thorntonloch Beach on 13th May 1950. There were a fair number of press reports, some with photos but I wanted to create a more personal take on the event, so I asked around the town and found people who had been to see the whales. From the initial interviews, I formed a set of questions to ask. I did an article for the local paper and I was contacted by about 20 people from around East Lothian, Edinburgh and other counties, as well as people who now live abroad but saw the whales. There’s an excellent Facebook site called Lost Dunbar and again, I got a good response from that. People offered to be interviewed but also sent me photos of the whales. Very few people had cameras in 1950 but some photos have survived e.g. one man sent me 3 photos he’d found in his flat when he moved in.

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My new book front cover

The book has been sponsored by Community Windpower who gave me a generous grant to allow publication of the book. All profits from the book go to the History Society and not to me. The book was superbly edited by Emma Westwater of Source Design and contains many photos of the whales but also of the cranes used to remove the whales, contemporary cars, buses and bicycles. The first chapter examines press reports of the event and this is followed by chapters on how people got to Thorntonloch in 1950, what they saw when they got there, how people felt and behaved, and a final chapter on why whales strand and what might happened today if a similar stranding happened. The heart of the book is the series of oral history interviews I conducted – face to face, on Skype and via Skype phone – with people who contacted me and others who were recommended by the initial contacts.

My good friend and old school pal Nigel helped me to design a website for the book. My input was text and Nigel did all the techie stuff and what a great job he’s done. Check the website out here as it allows you to buy a book online via PayPal or credit card. I want to use social media to publicise the book, so if you have a Facebook page or you Tweet, please put details of my book on your page and encourage all your friends to do likewise.

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

I had some interesting research to do for this book. For example, I bought the photo above from The Herald and Times Group and on the back of the original photo was the photographer’s writing “Myrtle Cornwallace and Dorothy Scully from Edinburgh”. I assumed that Myrtle’s real name was Cornwallis and I looked up the name in the Edinburgh phone book and found one Cornwallis. I spoke to someone who confirmed that there was a Myrtle Cornwallis,  who now lived in Dunning, Perthshire (good photos) but of course, could not give me her phone number. I looked up Dunning and found Dunning Parish Historical Society and then I found that a Myrtle Potter had written an article for the site. I contacted the site manager and he put me in touch with Myrtle Potter, now in her 80s but with a very clear memory, so her interview added greatly to the book. In research, persistence pays.

I’ve had excellent feedback from many people about the book and although I wrote 11 books as an academic, this was like having my first book published again – that was in 1978!

Jane Smith exhibition and a different look at Coldingham Beach

March 12, 2016

The new exhibition at Waterston House, the home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club is by wildlife artist Jane Smith. We visited this very impressive exhibition and could see why Jane Smith is an award-winning artist. I got in contact with Jane Smith and she kindly gave me permission to download 2 examples of her work, which are shown below. What impressed me most about this exhibition – mainly of screen prints – were the shapes, of both the birds and the background, and in some cases, the shapes of the birds’ wings are replicated in the background sea and hills. So there is an abstract quality to some of the works on display, while in others, there is a fairly true representation of the bird but with melodious lines and curves both on the bird and in the water behind. This is shown vividly in  The Great Northern Diver, shown below.

Jane Smith Great Northern Diver

The Great Northern Diver by Jane Smith

In her prize winning portrait of diving gannets – Fishing Frenzy – shown below, there is a dramatic representation of the gannets entering water, with their bodies narrowing, and their concentrated focus on the fish. Again, the shapes – and this time, the colours, stand out. If you can get to this exhibition, it’s a must see. You can also see Jane Smith’s book Wild Island in which the author writes about a year in Oronsay and accompanies her fascinating text with a variety of paintings and prints.

Jane Smith Fishing Frenzy

Fishing Frenzy by Jane Smith

We haven’t ventured down to St Abbs Head and Coldingham Beach for a good while, so last Sunday – a clear, bright but cold day – we parked at the Nature Centre and walked down to the harbour and along to Coldingham Beach. I’ve posted photos of this beach and its surrounds on this blog before but this time, I pointed my camera in different directions. From the harbour, I took a photo of Northfield House which sits proudly on the headland. In the 19th century, the house was bought by an Edinburgh brewer and has recently been refurbished.

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Northfield House St Abbs Head

Going along the coastal path to Coldingham Beach, I looked back over the harbour, the centrepiece of which is the now defunct Lifeboat Station, which closed last year, despite a determined campaign by locals. The sea was quite rough and, perhaps with my knowledge of its closure, I thought that the Station looked forlorn.

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Looking back on the Lifeboat Station at St Abbs Head

On to the beach itself and there have been some dramatic changes over the years to the west side of the beach. Firstly, a large and impressive new house The Pavilion has been built on derelict land. Secondly, to the left of that house, the garden of the Dunlaverock House has been beautifully developed. Thirdly, there has been a dramatic transformation in the quality of the beach huts at Coldingham Sands. All three changes are in the photos below.

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Beach huts, The Pavilion and Dunlaverock House at Coldingham Sands

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Beach huts, The Pavilion and Dunlaverock House garden at Coldingham Sands

As there was a big swell on the sea, the surfers were out in force and I counted 12 of them, some of whom were standing on their boards and gliding effortlessly towards the shore. There’s a video of Coldingham surfing here.

Tracey Herd poems, crocus show and shiny sea

February 27, 2016

Last week, the new Poetry Book Society padded envelope came through the letter box, with the new Choice inside. I didn’t (and haven’t) opened it as I still hadn’t started the previous one, Tracey Herd’s Not in this World. I heard Ms Herd speak at the Royal Festival Hall in January – see previous post – at the T S Eliot Prize readings. Herd has some arresting images in her work which is often quite dark, not to say menacing. In the first poem What I Wanted “There was a muffled/ silence each night when/ darkness married with snow”. In the 3rd poem Little Sister, the younger sibling of the narrator from America’s Midwest is killed “in a moonlit road accident”. The final 2 lines are hauntingly ambiguous “She was pushed in front of a car./ I pray to God for my own salvation”. In The Living Library, a woman’s bookshelves are filled with crime novels and the books are “sitting/ well-mannered on the shelf,/ pushed in tight to keep/ their suave murderers inside/ their victims’ choked cries unheard”. I’m only at p20 of 73 pages, so I’ll come back to Ms Herd.

 

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Tracey Herd Not in this World

Last month it was snowdrops, so this month it must be crocuses. There is some debate about whether it should be crocuses or croci as the plural of crocus, but as that word is mainly thought to be originally from the Greek then, as my Latin teacher Mr Jack Milne would have said, it can’t be croci. Around Dunbar over the past few years, there has been a welcome upsurge in the planting of spring flowers by the local council and, just up the road from me at Spott Road, there has been a sudden growth of bright yellow on the grass next to the pavement. The crocus flavus – to give it its Sunday name – originated in Greece and Turkey and the ancient Greeks saw it as a bringer of cheerfulness and joy in the late winter – it is thought, although I’m never too sure about the veracity of some websites on this. Emily Dickinson’s poem LXXXIV starts with “The feet of people walking home/ With gayer sandals go-/ The Crocus-till she rises/ The Vassal of the snow”. An interesting take on the crocus being a vassal as this was a feudal tenant who was granted land by a nobleman in return for loyalty and perhaps military service. Even although the crocus is in the earth, Dickinson sees the snow as its master – until of course, she rises.

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Crocuses at Spott Road Dunbar

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Crocuses at Spott Road Dunbar

Having taken photos of the crocuses, I walked back down Golf House Road, near my house, to the beach. You could hear the waves before you saw them – an incessant, unstoppable  thundering. When I got to the promenade, the late afternoon sun was shining on the waves a bit out to sea and there was a superb light on the waves. This is very hard to capture i.e. with my limited photographic skills, but I tried. Hart Crane in his poem Voyages writes “The sun beats lightning on the waves,/ The waves fold thunder on the sand” and this beautifully describes what I was watching. I met my friend John who was coming along the prom and he said “Look at this! How lucky are we to have this on our doorstep?”. Very lucky indeed.

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Sun on the waves

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Rocks and the incoming sun-kissed tide

London trip: Victoria and Albert Museum and T S Eliot prize readings

January 13, 2016

This posting is rather late as we went down to London for the weekend last Thursday. We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel overlooking the River Thames. It’s an impressive piece of modern engineering but you do wonder what those who built Big Ben across the river might have thought if they could see into the future and look across to the Eye.  The photo below was taken on the manual focus setting as my camera has a problem – it will not take photos with the  automatic focus on.

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The London Eye on the Southbank

On Friday, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum which is one of our favourite haunts when visiting London. It’s a vast complex of rooms with ” unrivalled collections of contemporary and historic art and design” and you can go from huge castings of Roman columns to miniature paintings and jewellery within a few minutes. We elected to go to the exhibition of the mid 19th century photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. There’s an excellent video on her on the Vimeo site by the curator of the exhibition. Cameron was a wealthy woman who took photographs of her family, her friends and acquaintances (some famous such as  Charles Darwin) and her servants, who posed for many photographs in which Cameron tried to combine art and photography. The photos below – reproduced under Creative Commons from the National Media Museum – show examples of Cameron’s remarkable work and, given that the photos are 150 years old, the clarity is remarkable.

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Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

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Miss Philpott or May Hillier by Julia Margaret Cameron

We also went to see the Europe 1600-1815 exhibition and there were some beautiful rooms on display as well as some remarkably detailed pieces of furniture such as The Endymion Cabinet (very good silent video). Another outstanding feature was the Mirrored Room with its centrepiece a harp. You can see the room and listen to an audio description here. There are endless visits to the V&A and you’ll never live long enough to see them all, but what a wonderful place to go back to.

It was a busy weekend and coincided with my nephew Sid’s 21st birthday on Sunday. On Friday evening, we went to the excellent The French Table restaurant in Surbiton and this will be featured in the next posting. The original purpose of going to London was for me to go to The Royal Festival Hall for the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry readings, featuring many of the shortlisted poets. The evening was hosted by the distinguished poet and excellent presenter Ian McMillan who joked that his taxi driver had summed up an evening of poetry readings as “Another bloody do for people who wear cravats”. As McMillan said, although the Royal Festival Hall is a huge venue, when the individual poets were reading there was an intimate feeling in the hall. It was an inspiring evening as well as being entertaining, with McMillan’s introductions and anecdotes from Don Paterson. Below is the cover of the booklet given to the audience. The winner – announced the following day at the V&A – was Sarah Howe for her collection A Loop of Jade.

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T S Eliot Prize for best collection of poetry 2015

 

 

Barns Ness and The Last of the Light

December 23, 2015

A walk on Sunday along the beach at the White Sands, which is about 2 miles (3.2k) from Dunbar. The wind was in the south-west, so the sea was calm although rippled by the wind. If the wind is in the north, there can be breakers on this beach, but on Sunday, there was only Philip Larkin’s onomatopoeic “the small hushed wave’s repeated fresh collapse” from his poem To the Sea. At the east end of the beach, you find a series of limestone pavements, which were formed “with the scouring of the limestone by kilometre thick glaciers during the last ice age”. It’s hard to imagine a glacier being one kilometre thick. One of the most interesting features of limestone pavements are the visible fossils, of plants and animals, on the pitted surface of the hard rock.

 

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Limestone pavement at the White Sands

Once you reach the end of the beach, Barns Ness Lighthouse comes into view and there are alternative paths which take you to the lighthouse. We walked through the gorse bushes (some of them had unseasonable flowers), and then along the edge of the beach where the oystercatchers (includes video) were in a constant search for food at the waves’ edge.

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Oystercatcher. Photo by Mike Pennington and reproduced under the Creative Commons licence

Barns Ness Lighthouse first shone its beams across the sea in 1901 and the light continued to shine until 2005. It was originally manned by lighthouse keepers and then automated in 1986. One of our sons’ favourite picture books when they were young, was The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and you can watch it on a YouTube video (not sure about the copyright on this). It’s a great story for children, amusing and educational at the same time.

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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage

The lighthouse has been recently repainted and repaired and it is one of our local icons as it stands proudly at the sea-shore. There may not be a light shining any more but it is still a very impressive and fascinating building.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

Barns Ness Lighthouse

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

In last week’s Guardian Review, there was a review of a book on twilight The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson. I very rarely read non-fiction books these days but I’m going to buy this one. Davidson refers to the fact that in 2016, there is so much unnatural light that we forget what twilight – ” the last glimmering of a way of seeing” is really like. The author looks at prose, poetry and art in discussing the time between light and dark at the end of the day and also considers twilight in a range of countries. For example, the French refer to twilight as the time between chien et loup – the dog and the wolf. The French for twilight is le crepuscule which comes from the Latin crepusculum. I’ve noted here before that one of my favourite words is crepuscular referring to the twilight. Crepuscular is a muscular word.

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The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson