Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

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Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.

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Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

Bernard MacLaverty’s “Midwinter Break” and Scottish Birds’ photos

July 10, 2018

The literary output of the author Bernard MacLaverty stretches over many years and has always been of the highest quality. For MacLaverty fans, a 16 year wait for a new novel is a long time to wait but his new book Midwinter Break is certainly worth waiting for. It should be noted that MacLaverty has produced superb books of short stories in between the novels. This is a book that can be read and appreciated by readers of any age, but it will be particularly poignant to older – but definitely not old – readers in their 60s. The protagonists of the book are Stella and Gerry, who have been married for many years and are spending a weekend in Amsterdam in the winter. The couple live in Edinburgh but originate from Northern Ireland, where they lived during the Troubles. In a number of flashbacks, MacLaverty brilliantly presents key moments in their lives, such as  their early romance and Stella’s trauma and Gerry’s visits to the hospital. In Amsterdam, Stella is seeking solace in her life as she feels unaccomplished. She considers joining a group of women who share her religious faith, but this would mean leaving Gerry.

A key feature of the book is Gerry’s love of – and struggle with – alcohol. MacLaverty cleverly – and often humorously – shows how Gerry tries to hide his whisky drinking from Stella, but he also writes about how much pleasure Gerry gains from his first dram, then his second and then – what the hell? – his third. Of course, the hungover Gerry regrets his drinking, but not for long. There is a superbly written confrontation between Stella and Gerry about his drinking near the end of the novel. MacLaverty writes in detail about the couple’s daily habits and makes this intriguing to the reader. The novelist’s ear for conversation is sharp and the dialogue between the couple is utterly convincing.

MacLaverty also has his two protagonists referring to literature and Stella recalls Thomas Hardy’s poem on snow, following a storm in Amsterdam. The poem begins

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

The last line above is particularly observant – how snow takes away some of the noise we normally hear. It is one of the best novels I’ve read recently – buy it and you will not be disappointed.

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel. (Click on all photos to enlarge)

 

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, the front cover (below) shows a high-flying and imperious-looking glaucous gull, taken by Iain Leach. It has the equally imperious Latin name of Larus Hyperboreus. I had to look up glaucous which means having a “dull, greyish-green or blue colour” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It is by no means a pretty bird but its magnificent wing span has a multi-patterned elegance.

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

On the back cover, an extraordinary photo of a raven (Corvus Corax), taken by Jim Smith. In the notes above the photo (see below), Smith writes that the raven flew down to pick up a piece of bread on the ground, but “It would then rise up higher in the thermals, before flipping on to his back and floating back down”. This appears to me like a raven having fun and laughing at the world, in a look-at-me pose. Note the sharpness of the beak and the feet, appropriate for this often aggressive carnivore. Who would have thought that you might see a raven doing the Fosbury Flop?

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

A more gentle and much more colourful bird can be seen in the photo (see below) by Harry Scott, which featured in an article by R Craig and T Dougall on siskins in a small garden. The siskin (Carduelis Spinus) is a resident bird across the UK but particularly in Scotland. You can see a small flock feeding here. This is a very colourful little bird, with its range of blues and yellows across its body. As it clings to the feeder, its body is compact, with the wing and tail feathers neatly tucked in, but ready for flight at any second. The successive layers of feathers have an abstract look to them and resemble layers of stone that you see on beaches. You can hear more about the siskin and its call in this Tweet of the Day from Radio 4.

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Siskin by Harry Scott

Deon Meyer’s Icarus and bike stop at Oldhamstocks

June 8, 2018

I’ve just finished Deon Meyer’s excellent novel Icarus. Now the fact that this book is about a group of policemen trying to figure out who killed a man in Cape Town means that it will be categorised as a crime novel. If it is to be so categorised, then it should be classified as a superior crime novel. In Icarus, the protagonist is the troubled Benny Griessel, whose problems with alcohol affect both his working and social life. There are many troubled detectives around e.g. Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but Meyer’s detailed characterisation is well beyond the scope of most crime novelists. The author also presents, in a subtle fashion, South African society with its many racial and economic stresses. We also get an intriguing picture of different areas of Cape Town and the surrounding wine areas. The plot revolves around the murder of Ernst Richter, an entrepreneur who has set up a business which provides alibis for errant husbands (mainly) and wives. On the face of it, the company is very successful although we slowly come to see that this is not the case. Meyer maintains an excellent pace, with careful plotting and, like many other crime novelists, he does not lose his nerve at the end of the novel and go for a melodramatic conclusion. There is an unexpected twist right at the end of the book which is hard to see coming, and the reader is led up quite a few garden paths by the author. There is also humour in the book and some interesting detail on the development of the South African wine trade, as well as the more usual strains between different police departments. I will certainly return to this author and I encourage you to try out one of his books.

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Icarus by Deon Meyer (Click to enlarge all photos)

I am gradually getting back to some kind of bike fitness, mainly through a series of rides up the hills near Dunbar. We’ve had an easterly air flow – thanks to the Jet Stream unfortunately getting stuck to the west of the UK – for about 4 weeks now. So I have been heading east – I always go against the wind at the start of my bike ride – on a 24 mile (39K) route which takes in a fair few hills. The route takes me on a countryside route to Cockburnspath (good photos) and up the hill to the turning which takes you on to the Abbey St Bathans (good photos) road. If you continue on this road, then there are some serious hills on the way to and from Abbey St Bathans, but I turn off on the undulating road leading to Oldhamstocks, where I usually stop for a drink and a liquorice or treacle toffee.

I returned there yesterday with my proper camera, as the mobile camera was not effective on my bike ride. One of the features of the countryside around Dunbar at the moment is the hawthorn blossom which is also known as May blossom. The Scots equivalent of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” is “Ne’er cast a cloot till May is oot”. The meaning of this saying is that you should not discard any winter clothes until the May blossom appears i.e. not until the month of May ends. Due to the cold Spring we had here, the hawthorn blossom has not emerged in full until June this year, but what a show it now provides on countryside hedgerows and trees. In the first photo below, the cascading white blossoms can be seen and they are enhanced by the sun. The blossom totally transforms the tree from what one journalist wrote “In winter it [hawthorn bush] is a dour barrier of bare thorns”, into “the creamy curds of May blossom”. There is a deliciousness about the look of the tree, as if it had been decorated with tiny balls of ice cream and dusted with icing sugar.

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Hawthorn tree is full blossom

On closer inspection – in the photo below – you can see the individual flowers that contribute to this mass display, with their delicate petals and thin stamens reaching out to capture the sun and attract the insects. It reminded me of something divers see on coral reefs and you can imagine the hawthorn flowers dancing with the flow of the water on the seabed.

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Close-up of May blossom

This stop – and it is a bus stop also – is also interesting for the signposts in the photo below. No metrication here – I had cycled two and half miles from Cockburnspath, which is known locally as Co’path and is pronounced Co-burnspath. Below this, it should read Duns (good photos), an attractive border town which is 12 very hilly miles away. To the right, one mile ahead is Stottencleugh – cleugh is pronounced clue – ch (as in German Ich). In Scots, a cleugh is a narrow gorge and there is one near the farm of Stottencleugh. Below Stottencleugh, Cocklaw is signposted as one and a half miles away and it is a farm at the bottom of a very steep hill. This is a popular walking area (good photos). The larger signpost below points to Woollands ,which is a farmhouse set in extensive grounds on a hill and has magnificent views.

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Oldhamstocks signposts

After my stop, I followed the sign pointing up the big hill towards Innerwick and its normally hidden castle ruin. There is one last steep, winding hill you need to get up – to The Brunt farmhouse and steading  and from there it’s downhill and back to Dunbar.

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Dreels in two directions

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

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

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

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

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Spider and wild garlic

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

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

 

 

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