Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

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

Szalay

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

IMG_2118

House boats on the River Thames

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

IMG_2131

Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

IMG_2133

Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

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

IMG_2138

Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

IMG_2143

Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Advertisements

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

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

Underground

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

 

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

IMG_1877

Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

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

IMG_1879

Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

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

IMG_1880

Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

Edinburgh International Book Festival and The Bow Bar

August 25, 2017

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

IMG_20170822_104143

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

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

IMG_20170822_110810

Richard Ford books amongst others

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

IMG_20170822_110949

Richard Ford’s 1981 novel

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

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

IMG_20170822_134920

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

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

Bow Bar 2

Bow Bar sign

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

Bow Bar 1

Inside The Bow Bar, Edinburgh

 

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.

 

Darktown

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.

IMG_1650

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.

IMG_1652

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.

IMG_1657

Evening sky above Dunbar – interesting streaks

 

Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

IMG_1484

Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

IMG_1571

Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

IMG_1562

Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

IMG_1565

Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

Scan_20170523

The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

The Fishermen and the Sandpiper

February 3, 2017

The title of this week’s blog looks as if it might be a story for children but it is two different topics. I’ve just finished reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It’s a novel which is set in Nigeria and features four brothers who decide to go fishing in the local river, despite warnings from their parents not to do so. On returning from the fishing one day, they meet Abulu who is described as “a madman” and often goes around naked and dirty and is described as smelling of “.. rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus and of bodily fluids and wastes”. It is believed that Abulu has the gift of prophecy despite being mad and he predicts that the eldest son will be killed by “a fisherman” i.e. by one of his brothers. This is a tragic story of love, hate and revenge and there is an ambiguous ending which may give some hope. Despite the tragedy, the book is enthralling to the reader, as the tale is told from an account by Ben, the youngest of the four brothers, who looks back from an adult perspective on what happened to his brothers. The long suffering, but supportive mother and the eccentric (and sometimes arrogant) father have high hopes for their children. The father works for a national bank and the family is reasonably prosperous compared to their neighbours. Nigerian politics appears in a startling incident when the boys, who have skipped school, meet with one of the presidential candidates in the town and have their photographs taken with him. Obioma is an accomplished writer, although this is his debut novel, and the story is very well constructed, with excellent dialogue. Obioma can sometimes overdo the metaphors he uses but he does produce some startling phrases throughout the book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. I found my copy in a charity shop, so look out for your copy and you will not be disappointed. You can read the first chapter here.

fishermen

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, there is an interesting article on the Western Sandpiper at Aird an Runair by Brian Rabbitts, who describes the bird as having “.. startling white underparts and rich rufous upper scapulars”. This immediately took me to the dictionary as “rufous” and “scapulars” were new words to me. The word rufous comes from the Latin rufus meaning red and is used to mean reddish-brown. Scapulars are shoulder feathers on birds, although a scapular, in a religious context,  can be “a sacramental object made of two small panels of woven wool (the required material)” or a short cloak worn by a monk. When you look at the superb photos below – generously sent to me by Brian Rabbitts – the feathers could be seen as a kind of cloak. I had a feeling that The Sandpiper was a piece of music, so I looked it up. There maybe music with that title, but what I was recalling from the dim past, was the film The Sandpiper (video) with the famous tune The Shadow of Your Smile.

In the first photo below, the bird’s scapular is shown clearly but I think that in this picture, the colours in the kelp outshine the bird.

sandpiper-1

Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts (Click to enlarge)

In the 2nd photo, you can see the bird’s dagger-like beak and legs that might be of steel welded on to its body, plus the scapular which reminds me of tiles on a roof.

sandpiper-2

Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

In the third photo (cropped by me), I like the stoical look on the bird’s face, waiting patiently for food to swim by. Also, the swirl of the incoming wavelet compliments the flow of the bird’s feathers. You almost want to stroke this bird’s back.

sandpiper-3

Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

 

The Bone Seeker, views of St Abbs and the Number Four gallery

December 6, 2016

I’ve just finished reading M J McGrath’s  The Bone Seeker, a crime novel set in the Canadian arctic. This is a crime novel with interesting characters, including the heroine Edie Kiglatuk, a teacher who is seconded to help the police solve the mystery of a local girl’s murder. One the key “characters” in this novel is the arctic itself as well as the local Inuit culture. McGrath introduces us to Inuit words like  qualunaat – white people and avasirnguluk – elder, to create a convincing environment for her story. The history of the exploitation of the Inuit by outsiders, such as the US and Canadian governments, is  covered but with a light touch. McGrath is a story teller and the plot is well-paced. The reader does get a real sense of how people live in this (to most of us) extreme climate. Most of the novel is set in the summer where darkness is absent and the endless light can prevent people from sleeping, but winter approaches fast near the end of the novel and the transformation of the land and sea is well portrayed. Perhaps the ending features too much action in a short space of time in this book where the story builds to a complex conclusion. This is not just a book for readers of crime novels, so get it if you can.

bone-seeker

The Bone Seeker by M J McGrath

Regular readers will know that my wife and I visit St Abbs Head on a regular basis and these visits have featured on this blog many times. This visit was on a very cold and frosty Sunday morning but the sky was huge and Australian blue. Leaving the car parked at the number four art gallery (of which more later), into which my wife ventured, I walked along the path which leads to another path, which leads to one of the cliff-top walks. In this photo, you can see the cliffs in the distance, with sheep in the field and before that rows of winter wheat, which are a delicious green in the winter sun.

img_1139

Looking towards the cliff-tops at St Abbs Head

I crossed the road towards the village, with a large field on my right and the disused church at the top of the hill. What I liked about the field (photo below) was the bright yellow of the grasses at the edge of the field, and the way your eyes are drawn to the lines in the field, both the narrow crop lines and the wider tractor tracks. All seem to lead to the now abandoned church on the hill. The pink-tinctured clouds are also attractive.

img_1140

Stubble field at St Abbs Head

Across the road is the imposing Northfield House, with its head of St Ebba above the gates. I’ve photographed the gates from front-on and the head in close up before, but I’ve never taken a side-on shot of the entrance. In this photo, the impressive stone entrance is shown off by the field and sky. There is a large walled garden here, part of which is in view.

img_1151

Side view of the entrance to Northfield House in St Abbs Head

I walked to the St Abbs Visitor Centre (open March-October) and looking down to the harbour, I saw a strange sight – a tractor was reversing into the harbour. On a second look, I could see that the two yellow poles behind it were part of a platform. One of the wee fishing boats reversed and sailed gently on to the tractor’s trailer.

img_1149

Tractor in St Abbs Harbour

I walked back to the car in the fading afternoon light and you could feel the cold deepening, ready to freeze anything that didn’t keep moving. We’ve been to the number four art gallery many times over the years and have bought paintings and glassware for our home and for presents. With my camera at hand (and this blog already in mind) I took some photos, with permission. The gallery is part of a very well maintaned stone built row of what presumably were farm buildings and has a very attractive entrance – photo below.

img_1158

number four gallery in St Abbs

The inside of the gallery (photos below) is bright, well laid out and encourages you to walk around to view the paintings – some superb landscapes were on view on our visit – prints, glassware, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery. See examples here.  One of the reasons many people revisit this gallery is the warm welcome given by the staff, who are very helpful, informative but unobtrusive. The original works available here are of excellent value, so pay a visit if you are in the area.

img_1161

Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

img_1162

Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

Say Something Back, A Spool of Blue Thread and autumn flowers

October 8, 2016

I am just back from Milan and the city will feature in the next posting. I was aware that the last 4 posts have been on cities I/we have visited, so I thought that the blog might be turning into some kind of Trip Advisor, thus the break from travel. The latest Poetry Book Society Choice is Say Something Back by Denise Riley. The first part of the book features a long poem A Part Song (podcast of the poet reading the poem) which is Riley’s sometimes candid, sometimes emotional reflection of the death of her adult son. I read this poem, which has different voices, and tried to take in the poet’s shock and wonder at how her son could die and some of the lines nearly brought me to tears. For example: “Each child gets cannibalised by its years./  It was a man who died, and in him died/  The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock”. In other parts of the poem, the mother attempts humour in speaking to her son: “O my dead son you daft bugger/  This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you/  And end this tasteless melodrama – quit/  Playing dead at all”. There are also some beautifully constructed lines which accompany the mother’s grieving: “Ardent bee, still you go blundering/ With downy saddlebags stuffed tight/ All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings” – imaginative imagery here. I am still reading this superb book – two poems each day.

say-something-back-9781447270379

Say Something Back – poems by Denise Riley

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and I enjoyed its quirky humour and its ability to tell a family story in a deceptively simple way. Tyler has written about the Whitshanks – a middle class family in Baltimore – and has told tales of similar families during the course of many novels. The story highlights the present day complications of the family – the errant son, the bossy daughter and the ageing parents Abby and Red, along with their grandchildren. There are a number of strands to the novel such as family holidays at the beach; Abby’s growing forgetfulness and Red’s increasing deafness. Tyler tells this family story with ease and you are drawn into the tale by her apparently straightforward prose. This is interspersed with telling comments about a character’s past or attitude. The novel then goes back in time to detail the romance and marriage of Red’s father and mother. Tyler is sometimes classified as being a “light fiction” novelist but this novel was on the Booker shortlist for 2015, so this is a harsh judgement on a fine writer.

tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Now that we are into October, some of the flowers in my garden are starting to change colour, especially the hydrangeas. As the photos below show, some of the flowers have gone from bright pink to a more delicate pale pink with veins and red spots but they are no less attractive for that.

img_0951

Semi-fading hydrangea flowers

img_0949

Fading hydrangea flowers

The fuchsia plants are now flowering well although I have not spotted bees amongst them as in Denise Riley’s poem above. However, when you see the fuchsia flowers, you appreciate Riley’s metaphor of drop earrings. The fuchsias will last for a few more weeks without fading as the hydrangeas do.

img_0954

Dangling fuchsia flowers

 

 

 

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

I’ve been reading The Guardian newspaper for many, many years. I’ve had the occasional letter published but what I’d always wanted to do was to have an article in The Guardian. I’ve finally succeeded and although I was disappointed not to have the article in the printed edition, the online version may well get more readers nowadays. There’s a feature in the Guardian Magazine called That’s Me in the Picture which I see every weekend. I decided that one of the photos from my new book on the whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 would make a good feature, so I contacted The Guardian and sent them the picture below along with an interview I’d done with one of the people in the picture.

Whales Darling

Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

In the photo above, the boy standing on the left hand side of the lorry is Sandy Darling who was 11 years old at the time. The paper wanted more information, so I re-interviewed Sandy who has a vivid memory of the event. The article was accepted and was due to be printed but the editor with the final say decided that it could only go online. The article has now appeared. Unfortunately, it has been edited and not very well in places and I think it’s a more clumsy read than my original. Despite this, I’ve enjoyed seeing it and even more now as above my article is the latest picture which has The Beatles in it! The photo is interesting not only because of the whales but the way people are dressed. In 1950, people of all social classes dressed much more formally when they were in places where others would be gathering. If a similar event occurred today, people would be much more casually dressed.

I’m nearly finished reading A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black which is the pen name of the well-known literary author John Banville. The book, like others in this series e.g. the outstanding Christine Falls, features the pathologist Dr Quirke who gets involved in the cases of the bodies he analyses in his laboratory. Quirke is curious by nature and he becomes a sleuth almost by accident and sometimes to the annoyance of his colleague Inspector Hackett. The books are very well written and well plotted but these are crime novels which take you languidly from scene to scene and interesting character to interesting character. Quirke is middle-aged widower whom women find attractive and he is romantically involved in all the novels. This is not your usual crime novel although there are murders, there are elements of police and medical procedure and there is a mystery to be solved. The books are very well written and Quirke’s reflections on himself and others are often quite humorous. The novels are set in Dublin in the 1950s and reading the novels means you get a sense of the city at that time e.g. everyone smokes and often they smoke untipped cigarettes – which also appear of course, in the Sandy Darling photo above. I would highly recommend these novels – they are much more than crime novels – to everyone, and in particular people who tend to shy away from “crime” novels. Finally, do read John Banville’s “interview” with his alter ego Benjamin Black – very clever.

deathinsummer_large

Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Guardi painting and William McIlvanney

December 7, 2015

In a collection of essays on art – Keeping an Eye Open, the novelist Julian Barnes urges us to go to an art gallery and study one painting in detail and perhaps write down our thoughts. I took his advice recently on a visit to the wonderful Scottish National Gallery and studied the painting Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

So, here’s what I ask you to do. Click on the painting to enlarge it and then, before reading what my interpretation below, think about what you see in the painting.

This is what I wrote down on my viewing of the painting. There is 3/5th sky and 2/5th water, with the sky lighter than the water. The viewer sees a contrast between the hard working and poorer gondoliers and fishermen in the larger boats, and the grandeur and opulence of the large church. The people outside the church appear to be more wealthy and some may be clergy. The gondolas appear to be transporting goods or people, in enclosed cabins, as opposed to the normal view of tourists in gondolas. The gondoliers all have red hats and they all wear trousers which stop below the knee. The building next to the church looks to be in poor condition and there appears to be washing hanging from one window. The bell tower dominates the right of the picture as the mast of the fishing boat dominates the left hand side. This is a busy painting, depicting everyday life, and while the church is magnificent and imposing, it is not (for me) the main focus of the painting, despite the title, as it sits in the background with the other buildings. There are vertical lines on the ship’s mast, on the church front and on the bell tower. There are horizontal lines in the motion of the gondolas. The gondoliers appear to be straining to push their crafts along. There are statues on the church, and some appear to be pointing, as is the woman in one of the gondolas. So, my interpretation is about the content of the painting and not the style.

One of my all time favourite writers, William McIlvanney, died at the weekend, aged 79. He was perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring the enigmatic Glasgow detective Laidlaw but in literary circles, McIlvanney was recognised as one of Britain’s finest novelists. I remember reading his 2nd novel Docherty when it came out in 1975 and it had a profound effect on me as a reader. Here was a novel about a working class man in the west of Scotland and the rigours of his and his family’s life but it was McIlvanney’s style of writing and use of striking metaphors that separated this novel from others of its kind. In fact, it can be argued that Docherty was an innovative novel which challenged existing perceptions of the Scottish novel, although to class it merely as a Scottish novel is to ignore its universal themes and the book was widely admired in many different countries.

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty by William McIlvanney

He was also an accomplished poet and when I got him to talk to my students at The Robert Gordon University in the mid 1980s, he told me, over lunch, that few people appeared to know that he was a poet. One of my favourite extracts from These Words: Weddings and After (1984) is his reflections on cats. “Indoors they are connoisseurs of sleep/Contortionists of ease…. Poses appear/ To melt into each other. They present/ A show of peace, are sculptors of content”.