Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Kathleen Jamie poem and trees and ewes at Smeaton Gardens

February 5, 2019

In the latest Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Winter 2018), there is a poem from the well known poet Kathleen Jamie. It is from her latest book Selected Poems and is entitled Skeins O Geeese – a poem written in Scots. It begins

Skeins of geese write a word / across the sky. A word / struck lik a gong / afore I was born. / The sky moves like cattle, lowin’.

I found two interesting aspects of this poem. Firstly, the dramatic images and secondly, that it reads as well in English as it does in Scots, although the poet herself (and others) may not agree, of course. We often get skeins of geese above us in the autumn (going south) and in the spring (going north) and it is a wonderful sight – a moving V across the sky. I had never thought of the onward skein as words being written in the sky, but I do like the image. The second image here – of the sky moving like lowing cattle – is also eyebrow raising and the next time you see clouds slowly moving across the sky, you might think of cattle. The poem is not just about the sky. On the ground,

Wire twists lik archaic script/ roon a gate. The barbs / sign tae the wind as though / it was deef. The word whustles / ower high for ma senses. Awa.

Only a poet as perceptive and lyrical as Jamie could see twisted wire on a farm gate as archaic script, but it is an apt simile if you picture hieroglyphics on a stone. The image of the wire using sign language to the deaf wind is also striking and the poet accepts that, as a mere human, she cannot hear the words of the wire. Again, if you read this in English, it loses none of its effect. Whustles or Whistles? Is one better than the other? Jamie obviously prefers the Scots. You can read the whole poem, as published in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement here.

New book by Kathleen Jamie (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Another cold winter’s day but with a brilliant blue sky and we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and walked up to Smeaton Gardens (good photos). Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a fascination with trees and on this walk up to the garden centre, there are a variety of kinds of trees, tree shapes and tree silhouettes. The first tree below is an evergreen but despite searching for a similar tree, I do not know what type of tree it is, but it could be a Scots pine. It stands out in the winter as most of the other trees are bare. This tree is obviously quite old as it has grown separate trunks above the base. It is an untidy looking tree, with its floppy branches and gaps everywhere and yet it stands in its own magnificence and looks warmer than its naked neighbours.

Evergreen tree at Smeaton Gardens

The second tree is a polar opposite to the first one. This tree looks as if it has suffered a lightning strike to its top and an electric shock to its branches, which although static, appear to be waving about. In the background, to the bottom left, North Berwick Law (good photos) can be seen above the distant forest.

Damaged tree at Smeaton Gardens

As you enter the grounds of Smeaton Gardens, there is a sign saying “Pregnant ewes” and warning dog owners to keep their beasts on a lead. We saw the ewes at the top of the drive. These are no ordinary ewes and the photo below shows their thick woollen coats and muscular looking bodies. The ewes were feeding amongst the horse jumping arena near the garden centre and you half expected to see one or more of them leap over one of the obstacles on the course.

Ewes amongst the horse jumps at Smeaton Gardens

On closer inspection (photo below), some of the ewes appeared to be small brown bears which had stolen in to the ewes’ enclosure to feed on the lush looking grass. The ewes were at first curious and came near us but, maybe working out that we were not going to provide them with extra food, they meandered off, looking none too pleased at our potential intrusion. It’s now February, so lambing cannot be far off for these expectant mothers.

Brown bear looking ewes at Smeaton Gardens

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey and Karangahake Gorge Walk

December 17, 2018

There are very few books of poetry that make you feel uncomfortable while reading them. You admire the versatility of the poet, the striking imagery and the immaculate construction of the book, but the content is disturbing. Ellen Hinsey‘s The Illegal Age (review) is one of the these books. The subject of the book is totalitarianism across the world and what she refers to as “political illegality” as seen, many would argue, in regimes such as that in Turkey today. So this is not poetry for the faint-hearted and it may be seen as very different from lyrical poetry dealing with nature for example. On the other hand, it is not so different, in that the poet is using imagery to allow us to examine the subject of the poems. The book is highly structured, with 3 sections, each with 7 sub-sections and the reviewer above suggest that the poet may be trying to replicate the bureaucratic structures of oppressive regimes – something I had not thought about.

The first section beings “Nothing happens quickly; each day weighs on the next -/ Until the instant comes -” when someone walking “along/ The foggy lane in innocence”  disappears. This suggests the gradualism of oppression. Another section deals with The Inconceivable which again creeps up on society until it is too late. This reminded me of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when most people would have seen the consequent rise of Nazism as inconceivable at the time. Hinsey then writes “.. the Inconceivable seeps forward, mastering territory with the unpredictable sleight of a storm’s stealth” – a frightening but beautiful image. In The Denunciation, subtitled East Germany 1979, a woman reflects on her husband/lover’s betrayal, asking when it began e.g. “when you sat together by the braille of a restless lake” or when he kissed her “by the prying iridescent eye of the butterfly”. Both these images – of the lake and the butterfly – are very imaginative and in another context would be uplifting and Hinsey does this throughout the book, to great effect. 

This will not be the most comfortable read of you life, but it does stress how important it is to record the rise of oppression and to remember it. Hinsey’s imagery will stay with you for a long time. 

Ellen Hinsey’s powerful book of poems (Click on all captions to enlarge the images)

On our trip to New Zealand, our niece took us to Karangahake Gorge (good photos) which is the site of an old gold mine. There are a number of different walks and we chose one of the longer ones which took us to the top of the hill which housed the mine. There are many interesting boards along the way and the one at the start of the walk (below) gives you an insight into what you might be encountering along the way. 

Karangahake Gorge in New Zealand’s North Island

It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gold mining was undertaken by large British companies at Karangahake and there is a good history here. As you go up the mount, you come across the remains of the mining infrastructure and equipment. Working in these gold mines was a hazardous occupation, as cyanide was widely used to extract the gold. The information board below shows some of the machinery used to crush the stone and then to mix the ore with cyanide. The ore/cyanide mix was made into bullion and on the bottom right, you can see a photo of a man pouring the molten liquid into a barrow. Health and safety regulations were unheard of in those days and other boards told of the fatalities that occurred in the mines. 

The use of cyanide in gold mining at Karangahake Gorge

As you climb to the top of the Mount Karangahake you pass many of the railway lines used to transport the stone down to the processing plant near the river. You also go through dark tunnels (phone torches needed) and you get the feeling of how claustrophobic it must have been in many parts of the mine. The walk is steep in parts and tricky in others but it is worth climbing to near the summit to get the views down to the river, as in the photo below. 

View from one of the lookouts down to the river at the Karangahake Gorge

One of the most fascinating features of this walk was the variety of ferns which we encountered along the way. The ferns themselves were of a multiplicity of greens and very attractive in themselves. What was more striking were the fronds which emerged from the ferns. The photo below shows the fronds emerging from a silver fern  and the stem is called a koru. 

Silver fern with fronds emerging from the korus

A close-up view (below) shows the delicacy of the frond which looks as if it could have been knitted or woven and the design might be used as the figurehead of a walking stick. With its delicate hairs on display, it also resembles what might be a curled up millipede, waiting to strike the next unassuming insect. This is nature as sculpture and a strikingly beautiful example of it. 

Silver fern frond in Karangahake Gorge

The Karangahake Gorge/Mount walk is an exhilarating one from start to finish and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Near the end of the walk, I took this video at the side of the river.

The late poet Matthew Sweeney and Seville Cathedral

October 23, 2018

A delayed blog due to your blogger’s significant birthday celebrations. I was shocked to read an obituary in the Guardian about the death of the poet Matthew Sweeney, who was only 65 years old. He died of motor neurone disease, a terribly debilitating illness of which one of my school friends died. I looked in my collection of Poetry Book Society choices on my bookshelves and found Sweeney’s 1989 collection Blue Shoes. Sweeney was an imaginative and often humorous poet . The Lighthouse Keeper’s Son from Blue Shoes, reads after the title “got arrested/ as he wobbled home on a lightless bicycle, after a late drink/ and he asked the cop/ if the pockmarked moon/ wasn’t light enough/ not to mention the Plough’s/ seven stars/ and his dad’s beam/ lighting the road/ twice a minute/ then searching the sea/ the umpteenth time/ for nothing”. While this is a humorous poem, maybe set in the Irish countryside, about a drunk man, a bike and a policeman, it is also one that contains intriguing imagery. The moon is “pockmarked” and the lighthouse “searches” the sea for “nothing”. The last word is ambiguous – does it mean that the light normally does not reveal anything in the sea, or is the light doing it for free? It is of course, not the light that searches but maybe the keeper. You can hear Sweeney reading his poems here and they are certainly worth listening to.

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Matthew Sweeney’s 1989 collection of poems (Click on all photos to enlarge)

On a recent trip to trip to the beautiful city of Seville with my pal, the main impetus of the visit was to see the football (aka soccer) match between Sevilla and Celta Vigo on a warm October evening. Those not interested should skip the next bit and go to the next paragraph. Here is the inside of the stadium just before kick-off.

We were there of course to also enjoy the city and its magnificent architecture, excellent restaurants and its culture. To say that Seville Cathedral is massive is a gross understatement. Some of its chapels are the size of cathedrals in other parts of the world. It was built on the site of a 12th century mosque and it took over 100 years to build, so both religions wanted something impressive to represent their faith. The outside of the cathedral is so extensive that you cannot photograph it all at once. The first photo shows the magnificent bell tower and the 2nd photo shows the exquisitely ornate main entrance to the cathedral.

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Seville Cathedral’s bell tower

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Entrance to Seville Cathedral

Inside the cathedral, the high vaulted ceilings and the perfect stonework of the pillars lead you into different areas and altars, such as the beautifully crafted and imposing silver altar. This video which I took in the main part of the cathedral, gives you an idea of the cathedral’s grandeur, including the superb sculpture of the tomb of Christopher Columbus, although there is some doubt as to whether it is Columbus or his brother that is in the sepulchre.

The cathedral is always busy with tourists, religious people and humanists, and each person will take their own view of this utterly stunning building and its variety of interior decoration, which displays an amazing range of craft skills and artistry. It is certainly a must visit to this enchanting city.

The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

Historic photos of the harbour and flowering honeysuckle

May 31, 2018

Having substituted local history research for my previous academic research since I retired, I have been fascinated by some of the material which has been given to me – some of it by former school pals, some by a girlfriend from my teenage years, and some by people on the Lost Dunbar Facebook site, of which I am a member. I joined the site to get material for my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. This is the only site to which I make a contribution, despite many requests from potential friends, some of whom are close relatives. I know that many people get joy from posting on Facebook, but it is not for me. One of my present roles is to maintain the website of Dunbar and District History Society. Interestingly, when I designed the site, with the help of a student from Dunbar Grammar School – my alma mater – I was told that websites were rather old-fashioned and that Facebook sites were much more popular – because of their interactivity. Given that the Lost Dunbar site already provides a local history forum for Dunbar in the form of photographs posted and commented on, there was no point in creating another one. What I have done, is post some photos on Lost Dunbar and directed people to see and read more on the History Society website. The site statistics show that this has been a success.

I recently posted two photographs of Dunbar Harbour (good photos) i.e. the main or Victoria Harbour, built in the 1830s. This succeeded the original Cromwell Harbour or Old Harbour as it became known. The first photo is of women – and a solitary man – gutting, basketing and barrelling a huge mound of herring. The photo is probably taken in the 1920s, when the herring fishing was at its peak on the east coast of Scotland. This was very hard work, with the women – both young and old – spending long hours gutting the fish. The smell must have been terrible and the work was done in all weathers. The women and girls who did this job are often affectionately – and rather patronisingly – called fisher lassies. Gutting the herring was done with very sharp knives and accidents were common. There was no health and safety restrictions in those days. In the photo, the women are mainly sitting on upturned baskets and the herring would be transferred from the baskets behind the women to the barrels you can see to the left. Packing a barrel was a skilled job as the fish had to be layered correctly. This must have been a socially off-putting task as, given the washing facilities available to these women in the 1920s, it must have been impossible to get rid of the smell of fish off their bodies. While the fisher lassies are celebrated in song (video), these women were clearly exploited, given the filthy conditions and the low wages.

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Gutting and barrelling herring at Dunbar Harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo was probably taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. It comes from a book entitled Views of Dunbar which was published by W Black of 126 High Street, Dunbar which is now the John Muir Birthplace. There is no date inside and no indication of where the photos originated. The photos in the book may have been based on a series of postcards of Dunbar, which were common in this period. It is certainly a fascinating scene and it was entitled The New Harbour, as the Victoria Harbour may well have still been called at the time. In the foreground, you can see the traveller/gypsy caravans. These were known as vardos and came in a range of designs. In the harbour, there is a boat with a funnel. Local experts tell me that this was not a fishing boat, as there are no letters or numbers on the boat. It is likely to be a trading vessel e.g. a tattie boat, carrying potatoes up and down the coast. Behind the boat, you can see the buildings of the Battery Hospital which was built in the 1860s as an isolation hospital for those with contagious diseases. The Battery has recently been transformed and I posted a feature on this here. You can see more historic photos of Dunbar harbour on the Dunbar and District History Society  Resources section for April and May 2018.

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Dunbar Harbour in the 1890s/1900s

May is the colourful month, with a succession of plants and bulbs producing brilliant displays. Just as the daffodils give way to the tulips, and the pansies and polyanthus start to lose their stature and beauty, the honeysuckle in my garden provides a startling new burst of colour. My honeysuckle  – proper name Lonicera – has profited from my extensive pruning last autumn and there are many more flowers this year than last. The name Lonicera was given to the honeysuckle in honour of the 16th century botanist Adam Lonicer. The name of the plant comes from the ability insects to suck honey from the plant i.e. the le at the end is a diminutive. Thus the bees do not suckle (as in breastfeeding in humans and animals) but take the pollen from the plant.

I took photos of the honeysuckle flowers on two consecutive days – one sunny, one rainy. The first photo shows the brilliant purple flower with its white extension – the female part of the flower – and the antenna which contain the honey/pollen of which the bees are so fond. What I particularly liked about this photo is the shadow of the flower below, which resembles a wheel-like contraption.

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Honeysuckle flower and its shadow

In the second photo, I managed to capture a bee feeding on the elongated white and yellow extension from the flower. The bee gives a magnificent display of gently stroking the very thin elements and hovering in the air.  Note also the shadows in this photo and the great range of colours on show.

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Bee feeding on a honeysuckle flower

Seeing the wings reminded me of Richard Thomson’s great song “Beeswing” – below.

 

The next two photos were taken the next day, after a short period of rain. In the first photo, the close-up of the flower captures the tiny droplets of water that have clung to the plant. On looking at it again, I though that it appeared to have been affected by frost – or dipped in some sugary substance.

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Honeysuckle flower head after the rain

The second photo shows both the flowers and the leaves with the raindrops still on them. I like the wide variety of shapes here, with the purple and white flowers appearing to be reaching out or displaying their wares to passing bees. I went out to the same spot and hour later and the plants were completely dry, having shed the water or absorbed it or let it evaporate in the late afternoon sunshine. We have not had the usual strong westerly winds this month, so the honeysuckle display goes on, with more flowers emerging fully each day, compensating for those which are past their prime and starting to wither. The poem The Wild Honeysuckle begins “Fair flower, that dost so comely grow” and I could not agree more.

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Rain splashed honeysuckle

Crocuses in the snow and Rita Bradd’s poems

March 26, 2018

In many towns and villages in East Lothian at this time of year, the crocuses – planted by East Lothian Council – have emerged, bringing a welcome splash of colour as you walk or drive into the areas. I’ve featured local crocus spreads on the blog before e.g. here. I was biding my time this year until we got the full display of these welcome early spring flowers, but sometimes you have to take an opportunity to photograph something that you are pretty sure will not be there if you come back tomorrow. Recently, we had a brief covering of snow in  Dunbar and we were driving through the next village of West Barns when I saw the crocuses on their bed of snow. It was a bitterly cold day but I got out of the car to capture the scene.

Firstly, the orange crocuses, making a brave show of themselves in the snow. You’ll see in all the photos that the crocuses are keeping their flowers firmly shut. These may be delicate little flowers but they are not daft enough to open up on a freezing cold day in March.

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Crocuses in the snow at West Barns (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Then the white crocuses. It may be that there are more of these plants to come but, as you see in the photo below, the white specimens on show sit by themselves and not in small groups as the orange ones above. Are these more individualistic flowers which like to display their beauty – see the delicate purple lines below the flower heads – on their own, with no competition from others? A search for “crocus” on the RHS  website   produces 695 different types of crocus on 70 pages, so identifying the ones shown here would be a large task – but do not let me stop you.

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White crocuses at West Barns

The purple crocuses below appear at first sight to be of a uniform colour. However, when you look closely, they are all individually marked. Searching for “purple crocus” on the same site reveals the delightfully named crocus tommasinianus, although it is not clear that the ones below fall into this category. The other feature of all the photos is of course the greenery attached to the stem of the plants and this is also very attractive. The sharp leaves are partly hidden by the snow but they reminded me of the wooden stakes that used to be used in medieval battles to trap advancing cavalry and impale the horses on the partially hidden wooden spikes. I cycled past the same spot a day later and the temperature had risen by a few degrees, melting all the snow. Some of the crocuses had opened up, but not many.

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Purple crocuses at West Barns

I have to admit some interest in reviewing Rita Bradd’s book of poems entitled Salt and Soil. Rita is, like me, from Dunbar and lives near the town. Her husband Alan was in my class in school. I am thanked in the Acknowledgements for my advice on publication. I will hope to be as objective as I can. This is a poetry pamphlet – 15 poems in total. In the title poem, there is an intriguing image of photographers on the rocks by the sea “They’re fishing for life at the edge of the world”. There are some fine lyrical lines in many of the poems, such as “Dawn sneaks her breath into seams/ that constrict the day’s fresh garment” from Day Break or “When the North Sea finished throwing up/ over Siccar point..” from Salt of the Earth, My Mother. Not all the poems are successful but there is enough in this wee book to make you appreciate the poet’s obvious talents. Rita Bradd may well not end up as a Poetry Book Society Choice author but very few poets do. If you would like to buy the book, you can order it here.

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Salt and Soil – poems by Rita Bradd

SWLA exhibition in Aberlady and Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy”.

March 1, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, is a stunner. The quality bar has been raised for this exhibition as it is organised by the Society of Wildlife Artists and contains an outstanding selection of paintings by the cream of British wildlife artists. I chose to contact two of the artists which I have not featured here on the blog and they both responded immediately, sending me samples of their work at the exhibition. Firstly, Brin Edwards is a painter, illustrator and teacher who is based in Suffolk. In the first painting below, your eye firstly goes to the brilliant range of colours – of the different parts of the ducks, of the water and of the vegetation. Then you see the various patterns on the ducks’ feathers and in the water. This is a group of individual wigeon, which have the delightful scientific name of Anas Penelope. Each bird has its own slightly different colour and feather pattern but, as you can see by the open beaks and staring eyes, they are definitely interacting. This painting really does stand out in the exhibition and shows the artist’s superb technique in capturing the colour and the movement of the ducks.

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Wigeon Interactions by Brin Edwards (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting by Brin Edwards below, we see the artist taking a different approach. When you first see this painting, it is the blossom and branches that catch your eye, as they are depicted in a bright but slightly hazy manner. Then you see the bird, with its sharp features and looking happy to be camouflaged by the foliage behind it. The Pied Flycatcher, which has the less romantic  scientific name Ficedula hypleuca, and comes to the UK in the summer, is shown here in what is an almost abstract setting, as if the viewer is looking through gauze. It is a startling effect and makes you look closer. The two selected paintings from the exhibition show what a high quality artist Brin Edwards undoubtedly is.

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Spring Pied Flycatcher by Brin Edwards

The second artist I chose was Richard Johnson, originally from the north east of England and now based in Cambridge. He is a bird painter and book illustrator. The first Johnson painting below shows that he is a more naturalistic painter of birds than Brin Edwards, so has a different approach. You cannot compare the two artists’ style i.e. one is not better than the other. What you can say is that Richard Johnson’s paintings show the same high level artistry as that of his fellow SWLA member. This watercolour is of a male cuckoo, with the amusing sounding scientific name of cuculus canorus. It is an intriguing painting, as there appears to be some motion on the bird’s part. Has it just landed or is it about to take off? Johnson has a great ability to show the detail of the cuckoo’s feathers, with their contrasting patterns and I liked the way that the tail feathers were shown as sharp-pointed to the right and fan-like to the left. You also have to admire the colours, shapes and patterns in the branches and tree trunk next to the bird. There’s a mesmerising entanglement here and it is to the artist’s credit that he draws our eye to the detail of the woodland setting.

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Richard Johnson Male Cuckoo

The second painting is of a broad-billed sandpiper aka Limicola falcinellus. At first, this looks a simple painting but this view is to underestimate Richard Johnson’s ability to draw our eye to the lines – dotted and straight – in the painting. Everything is sharp about this sandpiper – the beak, what looks like a shaved line on its forehead which some modern footballers have, the flowing marks on its breast and the neatly constructed feathers. The back of the bird reminded me of a shell e.g. on a tortoise or armadillo. The thin but sturdy looking legs again suggest movement and there is concentration in that keen eye. Richard Johnson’s birds show his amazing skills and will always delight the viewer.

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Richard Johnson Broad-billed Sandpiper

This really is a must-see exhibition, so please spread the word and if you are anywhere near East Lothian, make your way to Waterston House and be amazed and delighted.

Sasha Dugdale’s book of poems Joy is the latest PBS Choice. The title poem Joy features Catherine, the widow of the poem William Blake. She is distressed by his death and feels isolated. Her memories are more positive and she remembers “The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking./ I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy/ I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god”. This long poem is presented as if Catherine is sitting on a stage, giving a monologue. She is angry at her husband for dying – “What right did you have? …. And here I am. Your helpmate… your Kate … Bonded to nothing./ How I ache, how I ache”. The poem is a powerful reflection on her marriage and how she feels abandoned by those who once feted her husband. Despite the book’s title, many of the poems involve people looking on the dark side of life. In Canoe, the people who set out on the canoe are never seen again and there houses are vandalised. Dugdale has some striking images  e.g. “.. there was nothing to see except white fog/ and the white sun which reflected itself in every droplet”. In Kittiwake, the poet begins “Your jizz, little gull is the traveller’s / jizz, the wanderer, who sees the black, flecked ocean/ barren like the steppe”. In this context, jizz is a birding term for the characteristic of a bird. This is an intriguing books of poetry and highly recommended by the PBS and by me.

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Joy by Sasha Dugdale, PBS Choice

The kittiwake poem neatly gives me an excuse to repost a couple of photos of kittiwakes nesting on the walls of Dunbar Castle (good photos).

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Kittiwakes at Dunbar Castle

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Kittiwake family at Dunbar Castle

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

Doon the herber and snowdrops at Pitcox

February 3, 2018

In local parlance, going to or down to the harbour in Dunbar is known as going “doon the herber”. I was looking out to sea last week and saw 2 fishing boats approaching the harbour, so I went along the road with my camera. I saw only one boat, which was unloading prawns. The boat itself was covered in at the sides, presumably for protection, but for a photographer, this is disappointing as you can’t get a shot inside the boat. The prawns were on the quay in boxes. As the photo below shows, these prawns are heaped together in what some might think is an unseemly fashion. They are orange on the top and pink on the underside, with tails which fan out and they have spindly legs. If you did not know what a prawn was, you might look at this and imagine them to be an invasion of maggots or an underground nest of newly merged orange caterpillars.

 

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Newly landed prawns at Dunbar harbour (Click to enlarge all photos)

As ever, when a boat comes in to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) and to harbours the world over, the seagulls are out in force, looking for an easily accessible meal. In our harbour, the majority of gulls in winter are herring gulls. In the first photo below, you can see both adult and junior gulls. The juniors are rather drab looking, with dull necks and spotted grey outer wings. In comparison, the adult gull (2nd photo)  is sparkling white and has the distinctive orange spot on its yellow beak. It also has rather spindly, arthritic looking legs and feet. Herring gulls can be nuisances in inland towns when they tear open food bags. They also occasionally steal ice cream cones from unsuspecting tourists who have come to see the sights in Dunbar. When they are at the harbour, they are more in their proper context, as in the 3rd photo, coming in to land on the fishing boat, hoping to find food trapped in the nets or trawls. These big, bold birds are opportunists at work.

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Herring gulls on the Dunbar Harbour quayside

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Adult Herring gull on Dunbar harbour Quayside

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Incoming seagulls in Dunbar Harbour

I’ve featured the early snowdrops at Pitcox Farm, which is about 4 miles (6.5k) from Dunbar, on the blog before but it is two years since I did so. On a cold winter’s day, the spread of snowdrops under the trees is a welcoming sight, when you see their white and green patches on the grass, part of which is streaked yellow by the afternoon sun in this photo.

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Snowdrops and trees in the afternoon sun at Pitcox Farm

Alice Oswald’s now famous poem Snowdrop was chosen by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 2016 to celebrate National Poetry Day and you can hear Sir Andrew Motion reading the poem here (video). The poem (words here) views snowdrops as “pale pining” girls with their heads bowed, and “with no strength at all”. Looking at the snowdrops close-up below, you might agree with Oswald and see the flowers as similar to the downtrodden women in The Handmaid’s Tale (see picture). On the other hand, these flowers emerge in the depth of winter and withstand snow, ice and frost, so maybe we should view them as the Terracotta Warriors of the winter flower world, as they stand strong together in ranks.

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Snowdrops at Pitcox

The final photo shows the snowdrops, along with the elegant birch trees beside the newly roofed cottages which are being renovated. Pink clouds in the afternoon sky can be seen through the trees – a beautiful setting.

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Snowdrops and red roofs at Pitcox Farm

PS The blog is likely to be less than weekly this year as I’m starting a new writing project, of which more later.