Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

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

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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.

T S Eliot Prize readings and Inside the V&A

January 18, 2018

We are just back from a long weekend in and near London. On Sunday evening, I went to the Southbank Centre at the Royal Festival Hall for the annual T S Eliot Prize readings. The ten shortlisted poets are each allocated 8 minutes to read from their book published in 2017. The evening is hosted by the inimitable Ian McMillan who, before introducing the poets, launched into a very funny riff on how people were trying to get him to leave poetry for prose e.g. he had been offered 350 million words a week to leave poetry. For those outside the UK, this was a take-off of the truly awful  leave campaign in the referendum in 2016. This event is both a collective and a personal experience, as each poet comes to the stand and reads maybe 3 or 4 poems. The collective clap and then each persons listens as if the poem is addressed to them personally. There were a range of delivery styles on show, as some read their work carefully and slowly, while others recited by heart and produced lively performances, such as Caroline Bird (check Performances). A poet I’ve long admired is Douglas Dunn, now 75 years old and his classic book Elegies, which was published in 1985 was a moving evocation of his wife’s dying. Dunn recited Cognitive Disorders in which he described seeing  “.. the snails on their silky pilgrimage / Over the slippery slabs of a garden path./ I’ve heard ants’ martial marching songs/Their tiny tambourines, trumpets and gongs. Too-whoos of the nocturnal polymath”. Although the ten poets all read their poems, no winner is announced. This is not some TV show at the end of which one of the presenters looks deadly serious and tells us what we already know – there can only be one winner – and then proceeds to announce the winner only after an annoyingly long pause, which is supposed to increase the tension but only induces yawns amongst viewers. The winner was announced the following day and it was Ocean Vuong with his book Night Sky with Exit Wounds . His performance had the audience gripped with the intensity of his reading. One of the poems he read was the intriguingly titled “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong” including “Ocean,/ are you listening? The most beautiful part/ of your body is wherever/ your mother’s shadow falls”. Chair of the judging panel stated that Vuong’s book “.. deals with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations. It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice.”

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Winner of the T S Eliot Prize 2017 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum is always rewarding. In fact, you could spend most of the rest of your life going around the museum and always finding something new. The hanging sculpture at the entrance (below) quickly catches your eye. This radiant splash of colour and anarchic shapes contrasts with the more traditional – yet magnificent – dome above.

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Sculpture at the entrance to the V&A.

Just along from the main desk is the room containing material from the “Medieval and Renaissance [period] 1350-1600”. What strikes you first when you enter the room is the vast array of sculptures on show, but then your eye goes upward to the very modern ceiling with its row of tubes and the line of central windows which let the natural light flood the exhibits.

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Medieval and Renaissance room at the V&A

I wandered through the Europe 1600 to 1815 galleries, which are one of my favourite places to visit in the V&A, and I came across a new creation – The Globe (check out the video). Sitting inside The Globe (photo below) is like being in a wooden igloo, with gaps, and your eye is drawn around the smooth wooden walls and up to the central hole in the “ceiling”. It’s very peaceful to sit and appreciate this beautiful creation. One of the curator’s comments is “The structure refers to several images from the Age of Reason. It can be viewed variously as a hemispherical map of the world, a bookcase, an interior from a great library classifying all human knowledge, a symbol of the universe, or an architectural model”. So, despite this being a 2015 installation, it fits in well with the 1600-1815 objects on display in the various rooms. I thought it was a brilliant idea, creation and space.

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The Globe at the V&A in London

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

Art in Florence and autumn in Binning Wood

November 24, 2017

So on to Florence for culture and an exciting football match at Fiorentina‘s stadium, with the home team winning 3-0 against Torino, having survived a potentially calamitous first 20 minutes. When you say to people that you’ve been to Florence, their eyes light up and many tell you how often they’ve been. It’s a culture-stuffed city to visit, with numerous art galleries, museum and public sculptures. This was my second visit to Florence – previous visit here. I hadn’t been to Florence’s most famous art gallery, the Uffizi, so I booked tickets in advance (a wise move, given the queues even in late October) for my pal and me. The Uffizi gallery is, like the Prado in Madrid, huge and has multiple rooms – 101 shown on the floor plan, each with many stunning paintings. If you started at the beginning and worked your way through, it could take weeks. The gallery helpfully provides a free “highlights” brochure and we followed this. The Uffizi is, again like the Prado, heavy on religious paintings, many of them dark and fairly morbid, although the artwork is unquestionably superb. One of the key themes highlighted is how artists over the 14th to 18th centuries portrayed the Madonna and Child, with Giotto’s interpretation (see below) being one of the most famous. Giotto was praised for making the figures appear more human than had been seen in previous interpretations and this was seen as a new style in painting.

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Giotto’s Madonna and Child in the Uffizi Gallery (Click to enlarge all photos)

The gallery’s best known work of art perhaps is Botticelli‘s exquisite Birth of Venus (below) and it is a stunning work of art. There is myth and fantasy in this painting as Venus is shown being carried on a shell to an island. There is so much to see in the painting that you can stand for a long time, admiring the colours, the figures, the sea and the trees. Venus herself is portrayed as a beautiful young woman and Botticelli’s use of nudity was controversial at the time, as eroticism was not approved of in many artistic and political circles.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery

The 2nd major gallery we visited was the equally extensive Palacio Pitti which houses the massive collections of the Grand Dukes of Florence from the 15th to the 17th centuries. As well as the many works of art on display in the various museums, the Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated (check website) with ornate carpets, curtains, wall hangings and beautifully made furniture (good photos). Once again, religious paintings predominate, as was the main style of the times but there are also some eyebrow raising works, such as Marina by Salvator Rosa. The photo below does not do justice to the impact that this very large painting makes on the viewer. It is full of intriguing elements, from the light house on the right, to the ships in the middle, to the people at the bottom of the painting and the brilliant effect of the sun shining across the scene.

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Marina by Salvator Rosa

Back home and a walk through Binning Wood to delight in the autumn colours and experience the splendour of the leaves still on the trees, although they were falling as we  walked. If there was colour, contrast, light and shade in Florence’s museums, then there is an abundance in this East Lothian wood, which lies just over 6 miles (c11K) from Dunbar. I had cycled past the woods two days before and was determined to take my camera before this autumnal outpouring of colour, shape and texture would disappear as quickly as it appeared. We began our walk on the west side of the woods and walked through to a point where the paths diverge (photo below). In the winter, my pals and I cycle through here on our mountains bikes and would follow the path on the right of the picture. On our walk, my wife and I took the left path, which goes deeper in to the woods. This reminded me of Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” which begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;”.

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The path divides in Bnning Wood

Frost’s “yellow wood” could be Binning Wood at this time of year, with trees still holding on to leaves of different shades of green and yellow, as in the photo below. The path at this point in the wood was covered with fallen leaves, providing a contrast in colours, with the fresh yellow leaves on the trees and the now orange/brown of the fallen leaves, as well as the various colours on the tree trunks.

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Trees and a leaf strewn path in Binning Wood

The wood continues across the road which leads to nearby Whitekirk (good photos) and I crossed to try and capture the thinner trees here and their shadows on the floor of the wood. The sun was still high enough to hit the smooth and elegant trunks of the trees and cast shadows, which appear to be fallen trees on the ground. Passing the same woods yesterday – 10 days after taking these photos – I could see more branches and much fewer leaves. Another 10 days and they’ll all be gone, so it’s good to be able to capture this fleeting burst of colour.

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Tall trees and shadows in Binning Wood

More Sinead Morrisey poems and Madrid’s magnificent architecture

October 12, 2017

 I have just finished reading Sinead Morrisey’s remarkable book of poems entitled On Balance”. In a previous post, I focused on the first poem in the collection The Millihelen which has been widely praised. For the rest of the book, Morrissey maintains this high standard with telling insights and memorable phrases. In Nativity which is about parents watching children in such a play, has these lines:

“mums and dads on loan from their workaday offices;/ littler brothers and sisters crashed out in pushchairs/ and parked along the aisle like outsize baggage”

The imagery continues later in the poem “… we are left/ with a row of just-licked-by-a cow-looking boys/ in dressing gowns, Mary in a dress, Immanuel/ in his cradle, low-key and ineffable …”.

In Meteor shower, “..and the stars in behind/ shining steady as lighthouses/ and yes, not once but twice/ – there and then there -/ dust on fire at the edge/ of Earth’s flaying atmosphere,/ scoring its signature”. The word “flaying” makes these lines, suggesting chaos. There are a sequence of poems entitled “Whitelessness” which looks at how different scientists might view Greenland. The Geologist finds ” .. the ridges of human teeth:/some early Palaeolithic adolescent caught/ grinning at the moment of death/ in a stone photograph”. The Photographer observes: “The red earth holds up/ a rainbow in its outstretched hands”. As The Geographer studies the earth, “Ridiculously/ overdressed, two musk ox trundle past. / We must sound enormous – / …. but they blank us nevertheless”. These are just a few examples from the book, which rightly won The Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017. It also has a beautiful cover. Get a hold of it if you can, preferably by buying it from the Poetry Book Society.

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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge all photos)

Where to begin with Madrid’s magnificent architecture? I’m concentrating on the older buildings and monuments, but there’s an excellent slide show of modern architecture here (good photos). Our apartment, with its high ceilings and cornices, beautiful parquet flooring in different designs, had two large windows, each with a small balcony which looked across the to Palacio Cibeles. You can sit in the outside bar at the top of the building for 4 euro per person and we enjoyed a glass of wine there one evening, as well as the stunning views across the city, in the photos below. The first photo looks down on the Casa America (good photos) and on to one of the modern art deco influenced buildings behind.

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Looking across Madrid from the Palacio Cibeles

The 2nd photo looks down on the extensive army headquarters, known as the Buenavista Palace and we were unfortunate to miss the Changing of the Guard (good photos).

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Looking towards the Buenavista Palce and woods from the Palacio Cibeles

Not far from the Palacio Cibeles, you come across one of the many puerta or gates to the city of Madrid. The photos below show the Puerta de Alcala, a magnificent structure ordered to be built by Carlos III, King of Spain in 1778. Carlos was obviously not a man to do things by half and the puerta dominates this part of the city. On the right of the puerta is the Retiro Park, featured here last week.

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Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

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Top of the Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

Madrid city centre is teeming with stunning buildings, from the apartments on the Gran Via (good photos) – 2 photos below – to the umpteen churches and palaces – too many to mention here. The Gran Via is Madrid’s busiest street, best avoided at weekends.

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

The Plaza Major is often described as being at the heart of Madrid and it certainly is beautiful square, comparable in terms of the buildings/apartments, to St Mark’s Square in Venice. Again, if you go at weekends, you might never see the square properly, as there are so many tourists, but go midweek and you’ll be able to appreciate its grandeur to the full.

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Plaza Major, Madrid

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Plaza Major, Madrid

The Millihelen and seafood dinner on Lifeboat Day

August 18, 2017

The new Choice book from the Poetry Book Society is On Balance by Sinead Morrissey and the book opens with an outstanding poem. You can read the poem here and listen to the poet reading it here (video). I first read the poem without having seen the Notes at the back of the volume. We are told by the poet that a Millihelen is ” the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship” – a brilliant concept. The poem is about the launch of The Titanic (YouTube with photos of actual launch) in Belfast in 1911. The poem begins:

“It never looks warm or properly daytime
in black-and-white photographs the sheer cliff-
face of the ship still enveloped in its scaffolding
backside against the launching cradle
ladies lining the quay in their layered drapery
touching their gloves to their lips”
There is no punctuation in the poem but you soon get into its rhythm and appreciate the images and the poet’s view of what certain images  portray e.g. in the black and white photos, it’s not “properly daytime”. There is superb movement to the poem which mimics the launch of the ship:

 

“….. it starts
grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts
moving starts slippery-sliding down
slow as a snail at first in its viscous passage
taking on slither and speed gathering in
the Atlas-capable weight of its own momentum”
The deluge of images continues as the ship is an “iron palace”, the snail has a “viscous passage” and the ship is “Atlas-capable”. You need to read this poem a number of times to appreciate the density of the images and to imagine the ship sliding into the water through the eyes of the poet, who notes that, once in the water,
“the ships sits back in the sea
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly”
So this magnificent piece of engineering becomes “ordinary”-like once it regains its balance in water. What an amazing start to a book of poems. I’m still reading it and will return to it.
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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge)

I’ve been saving this one up since last month. Our older son came down to Dunbar for his birthday. We were hoping to go the wonderful Creel Restaurant but couldn’t get in, so we decided on a seafood dinner as it was a sunny day and we could eat outside. Earlier in the day, the annual Lifeboat Fete took place at a packed harbour. As we sat having our dinner, we could see the lifeboat out at sea, along with a coastguard helicopter. Unknown to us, a diver had gone missing in a wreck off the coast. As far as our meal was concerned, we had (photo below) smoked salmon, dressed crab and smoked mackerel pâté ,with lemon segments and salad for starters.

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Seafood starters

 We also had some fresh langoustines. I always think that shellfish like this are very fiddly and a lot of work for what you end up with, but these  were very tasty, as well as being colourful. These oddly shaped creatures with their rows of pink false teeth under the claws and their gnarled, ridge-backed, curled up bodies are a strange mixture of angles and curves.

 

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Fresh langoustines

For main course, our son cooked a whole sea bream in the oven and we had whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from our local trout farm shop with peaches and salad.
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Whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from Belhaven Smokehouse

All this accompanied by a delicious Provençal rosé, so a touch of luxury on a warm and sunny evening. When your luck’s in, it’s in.
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Dinner for three on a summer’s evening