Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

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.

 

 

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The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

I’ve just finished reading The Ice (Guardian review) by Laline Paull. The book comes with high praise on its cover – “An important and powerful novel … strikingly prescient” according to The Independent. The novel is set in the (not too distant?) future as the Arctic ice has melted and opened up new shipping lanes, and it focuses on the friendship between relatively poor boy made rich Sean Cawson and the more wealthy radical environmentalist Tom Harding. After Tom’s death in an Arctic cave, his body disappears but is resurrected – still frozen – by a glacier calving. Much of the book is set during the inquest into Tom’s death and this is intersected with flashbacks to the scene where Tom died. Throughout the book, the reader is given more and more insight into what happened, so there is a tension as more details are released. Who is telling the whole truth? In the background, a luxury lodge has been developed in the Arctic circle and again, Paull gives details about possible uses – legal and illegal/immoral – of this lodge. For four fifths of the book, I thought that this was a well written novel which highlighted key aspects of climate change and its effects on our planet. Unlike the Guardian reviewer, I thought that the final part was overly dramatic, with the author desperate to have a multi-faceted conclusion. The descriptions of the Arctic environment provide an interesting and at times beautiful background to the story. A range of key issues relating to climate change are highlighted in the book but the author does not preach. The book also raises issues relating to capitalism, international trade and possible arms trading. I would not praise this book as highly as several reviewers have, so you will have to judge for yourself. I would urge people to buy it and read it, as it is well plotted, with some good characterisation.

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The Ice by Laline Paull (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I featured the Guardian’s Country Diary recently on this blog here but I am returning to it now as the subject of the diary on 5th May was Barns Ness, which is about 2 miles from my house. The lighthouse (photo below) is the outstanding man-made structure at Barns Ness but the coastal environment is what firstly interests the writer.

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

As with all the Diary entries, this one is very well written e.g. “The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving”. There’s poetry in here, with crabs having “a suspicious air” and the hermit crabs’ “pilfered shells”. This entry is by Cal Flyn and you can see all her Diary contributions here. Not far from the lighthouse is the Whitesands beach (good photo) and on clear sunny days, the beach almost looks white, so pale is the sand. The author comments on the limestone pavements (my photo below) which lie at the east end of the beach. These are a rich source of fossils and when you walk across their pockmarked surfaces, it is like looking down on a huge archipelago from a plane.

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

Flyn notes that she stayed at the cottages next to the lighthouse and ironically, the haar – known to us as a sea mist but originally (see link) an easterly wind – came in while they were exploring. It was only when the lighthouse loomed out of the mist that they knew they were home. Flyn comments “Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?”. The cottages can be seen in my photo below. If you are ever in the area, Barns Ness is a great place for walking, with an ever changing shoreline. At this time of year, you can hear the skylarks singing joyously above you, although they may be hard to spot.

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

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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The Ultimate Good Luck and a small, beautiful orchid

February 21, 2018

In the past week, taking a break from my local history project, I’ve determined to spend more time reading the novels I’ve recently bought and I read Richard Ford’s The Ultimate Good Luck (1981 review). I’ve long been an admirer of Richard Ford and have read most of his novels, especially the series featuring the enigmatic Frank Bascombe (interview with Ford). This is a much earlier work, written in 1981 and a different kind of Ford novel. The book is set in Mexico and the protagonist is Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran who feels alienated from the world, and who goes to Mexico to try to get his wife’s brother Sonny – a drug dealer – out of prison. It’s a very tense tale and the normal laconic humour you find in Ford’s more recent novels is absent. Quinn gets involved with some very nasty people involved in the Mexican drug trade – lawyers, police, the army, strong-arm men and their rich bosses. There are action sequences which are quite violent but Quinn is a reflective kind of man, who looks at the world with suspicion. There also some passages which demonstrate that Ford would go on to be a leading American novelist. One of  the aspects of this book you will remember if you read it, is the ever-changing light in Mexico and Ford’s descriptions are superb e.g. “A mist had burned off the hills and been borne up, leaving the south end of the valley in a Levantine light… It was like a National Geographic ..” In another passage, the lawyer passes a truck repair yard and “Acetylene smacked in the thick air and made the night appealing”. Later, “Quinn could hear .. the low sibilance in the street, the soft ventral suspiration of any city..”. This fairly short book will keep you interested in the story and entranced by the enviable felicity of Ford’s writing, so get it if you can.

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Richard Ford’s 1981 novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A friend of my wife gave her an orchid last summer, as a present for my wife’s help and concern during her friend’s illness. It was put on to the kitchen window and remained static for most of the winter. Then a green shoot appeared but faded. Then another shoot appeared and this one continued to grow and in the past week or so, the buds which formed at the top of the shoot have opened. It’s a small plant but a miniature beauty. I came through one evening and noticed the orchid and its shadow against the drawn blind. So now we had the delicate flowers and their pale, but beautifully formed shadow behind, as in the photo below. I like the way the delicate flower, with its shapely petals and purple spots, contrasts with the rather menacing looking unopened buds, which appear to be ready to repel any attackers. The shadows of the flower on the left and of the buds are gentle, light grey reproductions, but the shadow of the flower on the right looks misshapen and ugly.

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Small orchid and its shadow

The next photo is a close up of the flower on the left and, like all orchid centres, has a surreal look, with the petals appearing to be multiple bat-like ears of some weird creature with a protuberance at its centre. The splattering of reddish purple spots are more appealing. Sam Hamill’s poem “The Orchid Flower” begins “Just as I wonder/whether it’s going to die,/ the orchid blossoms/ and I can’t explain why it/moves my heart, why such pleasure/ comes from one small bud/ on a long spindly stem, one blood red gold flower/ opening at mid-summer, / tiny, perfect in its hour”. Hamill’s flower is different from this one and there are many varieties (good photos) of orchid, but I’d agree with him that our one is “perfect in its hour”.

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Orchid on our window sill

Today, I saw that a third flower had appeared and taken in the daylight, the new orchid (on the right) appears to have a creamier colour to its petal than its older sisters. This is a plant that is giving us some joy on cold February days. Outside, in the garden, the daffodil and tulip bulbs are nervously emerging from the ground, ready to hold fire again if another cold snap comes (and one is coming next week). In the warmth of the kitchen window, where it’s not too warm, the orchid presents a show in instalments, with each new opening well worth waiting for.

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Newly opened orchid flower on the right

Reading Raymond Chandler and the Lynn Rocks at East Linton

February 14, 2018

Looking through my bookshelves recently, I came across a novel by Raymond Chandler entitled Playback. It’s one of these books I can’t remember buying and at first I assumed that I’d read it, as it’s been on the bookshelves for a long time. It turned out that I had not read it, so I knew I was in for a treat. As an author, Raymond Chandler is better known for the crime novels which were made into films, such as The Big Sleep. The novel I have just read – Playback – was Chandler’s last and some reviewers saw it as his lightest novel in terms of plot. While this may be true, as it’s a simple story of the detective Philip Marlowe seeking out and then protecting Miss Betty Mayfield against evil men who want to exploit her fortune, the Marlowe dialogue shines through. The least successful Chandler novel featuring the wise-cracking Marlowe is still way above most other crime novels, in terms of style. Marlowe is often nowadays seen as not being very PC, in his descriptions of women but these are often insightful, from a woman’s point of view. On the 2nd page of this novel, Marlowe reflects “She wore a white belted raincoat, no hat, a well-cherished head of platinum hair… [and] a pair of blue-grey eyes that looked at me as if I’d said a dirty word”. Marlowe then finds Betty Mayfield coming off a train. Chandler writes “There was nothing to it … the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket”. Throughout the novel, Chandler has Marlowe using the idioms of the time e.g. “He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson”. Another investigator called Noble criticises Marlowe as a detective. Marlowe replies that they might get along if “you didn’t act like you thought you could lick your weight in frogspawn”. “Lick” in this contest means to beat in a fight. There’s a rather sentimental ending to the book but Marlowe’s final words are for a lawyer offering him more work. “I have a suggestion for you Mr Umney. Why don’t you go kiss a duck?” Raymond Chandler may have written his books in the 1950s, but they are still as fresh and stylish as they were then. You can find out more about the green Penguin books here.

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Playback by Raymond Chandler (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The bonnie village of East Linton (good photos) is 6 miles (just under 10K) from Dunbar and one of its most historic and enduring features is the Lynn Rocks, which can be seen from the bridge across the River Tyne at the entrance to the village. This bridge was built in the 1500s and transformed East Linton into a staging post on the main roads going west to Edinburgh and east towards the English border. The bridge (photo below) itself is a magnificent structure, with its mixture of red, brown/yellow sandstone blocks.

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The bridge at East Linton

The river flows gently under the bridge and then turns into a torrent as it approaches the gully between the rocks, seen below.

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Lynn Rocks in East Linton

There’s a drama about rushing water that fascinates us – the movement, the speed, the sound, the ever-changing colours seem to entrance us into gazing, rather than looking, into the gushing water. In the photo below, you can almost feel the movement of the water and there are a million shapes being formed and lasting only for a split second. This image reminded me of some of Ruth Brownlee’s paintings of  not just swirling waves, but swirling skies

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Fast flowing water at the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

Once the water passes the gully, all is peaceful. It is as if the water got into a furious argument with the drop in height, fumed and spumed, shouted and screamed, raged and struck out in all directions for a few seconds, and then calmed down, as the in the photo below.

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A calming river past the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

If you are ever passing through East Linton e.g. on your way to the famous Preston Mill, then you should stop and walk down to the Lynn Rocks.

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Darktown and summer evenings

August 11, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Darktown by US author  Thomas Mullen. The setting for this novel is Atlanta in 1948. While it can be described as a crime novel, as it involves the police and the solving of a crime, this book is no mere run-of-the-mill thriller. The main focus of the book is the inherent and ubiquitous racism that pervades the city and in particular, its white police force. The book uses the word Negro from the start and the N-word is used repeatedly by white officers. So many people might find it an uncomfortable read, but that should not put them off reading it, as it is a very well plotted story with interesting characterisation. As an experiment, the city of Atlanta has appointed its first 8 black police officers but they are very restricted in what they can do e.g. they can attend a crime but not investigate it further, as that must be done by white officers. The main story revolves around the murder of a young black woman who had earlier been seen with a white man. The two black officers, Boggs and Smith discover that their report has been altered and the murder case is not to be followed up. Against all orders, Boggs in particular seeks to solve this mystery. The two main white officers are Dunlow, a vicious racist with sadistic tendencies, and Rakestraw, a troubled young officer who is more sympathetic to black people. All the characters – even Dunlow – are shown to have good aspects to their characters and this is not simply a good guys versus bad guys book. The racial attitudes and the politics of race are shown to be complex in this riveting, often very tense and supremely well-paced novel. Go and buy it.

 

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Darktown by Thomas Mullen (Click to enlarge)

We’ve had a very mixed summer, weather-wise, in Dunbar this year, with more rain than normal and very few noteworthy sunsets. We had a short spell of interestingly coloured and shaped evening skies and here are some examples. This photo shows the town of Dunbar’s east beach shoreline houses with the High Street in the background to the right. Ominously looming above the town is what looks like an anti-ballistic missile on its way from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un or vice versa? As of today, we are unscathed.

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Evening sky above Dunbar

The next photo shows two of the ships which are parked out to sea. These are oil or gas related vessels which are waiting for business and park on the horizon (or so it seems) looking out from the back of our house, as they can park there for free. I like the delicate pinks next to the deeper blues of the amorphous clouds, which constantly change shape before it gets dark.

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Ships on the horizon and the evening sky

The final photo shows another evening sky above the town. This photo was taken just after we Dunbar folk launched our own anti-ballistic missile as warning to Trump and Jong-un. The bold Donald has been strangely silent on this issue but don’t worry – he knows. I would tell you more but I’m sworn to secrecy.  It was a beautifully coloured sky with a multiplicity of shades of pink, blue and purple – perfect for a glass or two of pale pink Provence wine – and a missile launch.

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Evening sky above Dunbar – interesting streaks