Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Pease Bay walk and Grahame Green’s Brighton Rock

September 5, 2022

It is well over two years since we last visited Pease Bay (good photos) which is 9 miles along the coast going south from Dunbar. As it was very busy Sunday afternoon, we had to park on the hill overlooking the holiday park. We walked along the wide stretch of beach in front of the array of mobile homes. The tide was far out and there were a couple of hopeful surfers near the shore, but that day the sea was flat calm. This is a very popular surfing area and you can see from these photos that when the surf is high, the surfers, body boarders and canoeists flock to this spot. This photo shows the beach we walked along when the tide is in. When the tide is out, you can walk past the rocks on to another big beach – a USA visitor we took here many years ago said we could be in California – which ends with the layered cliff in the photo below. As you cast your eye across the cliff face, you see the very attractive sandstone rock shining in pink. Many of the houses in Dunbar, including our previous house, which you can see with the red door on this Google street map , were built with this type of sandstone which was sources from local quarries.

Cliff at Pease Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back to the first beach, I could see that, since we last visited, there had been some coastal erosion – see photo below. In some ways, this is what might be seen as a superb piece of natural sculpture, with the huge rocks seemingly carved out of the hillside and placed in a structured group to provide a visual delight to the eye. These massive boulders look as if they might have been hewn out of the rockface to provide solid material to build a castle or even a pyramid. The truth of course is less attractive, in that climate change is producing more extreme weather e.g. Storm Arwen (video) last November, and rising seas and stronger winds leave coasts such as that at Pease Bay exposed and vulnerable. There has been coastal erosion for millennia but the rate of erosion has increased rapidly in recent years. The rocks remain, even in their fallen state, very attractive to look at, with their multiplicity of patterns and subtle shades of yellow and grey.

Coastal erosion at Pease Bay

Just around the corner from these rocks, you come to a small cave with the most stunning and colourful strata that you will find anywhere. The photo below – enlarge for best effect – shows this graceful and elegant display of colours, lines and streaks of what look like daubs of paint. I am always reminded of Aboriginal paintings when I see these rocks and I feel that a native artist from outback Australia could add dots and curves to these rocks and produce an incredible work of art, like the one here by Clementine Ecila. On a more prosaic note, the bottom half resembles a slice of layered cake, with a strawberry filling. The more you look at this picture, the more patterns you see.

Strata at Pease Bay

Adjoining the above strata, was another piece of natural art, this time resembling a surrealist painting more than anything else. The rock looks less formally stratified and green algae/seaweed has started to form on the curved rock, with a plethora of shapes e.g. the long dinosaur-looking head and body near the centre of the photo. The white surrounding the pink shapes highlight this seemingly random array of mythical creatures depicted here, not by a human but by the effects of sea and wind. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see what looked like to me an elongated shark, showing off off its vicious, flesh tearing teeth to foe and prey alike. This petrified creature is lying on the sand and I felt that it would well swim away when the tide came in and covered the pock-marked sand. The cliché about nature being wonderful certainly applies here.

Fascinating rocks at Pease Bay

I picked up a copy of Grahame Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock (review) in a second hand bookshop, neatly called The Reading Room, in Haddington, the next town west of Dunbar. The book was published in 1938 and there are certain passages which would not be seen as acceptable today but were not subject to the editor’s red pen in the pre-WW2 era. It has a dramatic beginning “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”, so we are set for a crime novel but this book is much more than a plot, which does contain murders, as we are introduced to a range of characters, firstly from Brighton’s gang world and then a woman who is determined, sometimes comically, to find out who murdered Hale, and why they did it. Greene’s main character is Pinkie, a 17 year old who has taken over one of Brighton’s minor gangs but has high ambitions for himself. Greene does not say so explicitly but the reader immediately feels that The Boy – as he is called early in the novel – is out of his depth.

The book often refers to the Catholic faith and Pinkie is ridden with guilt about his crime and also fears having his first sexual experience. Pinkie’s angst is contrasted with the devil-may-care attitude of Ida Arnold, the last person Hale was with, who doggedly follows leads in the case, while enjoying drinks in the local pubs. There is a dramatic ending but not overly dramatic as Greene builds up tension with Pinkie and Rose, whom he has married so she cannot testify against him, driving into the countryside with a gun in the car. This is a very tense novel but one which will keep you by turns intrigued and amused. Greene is a master storyteller and I urge you to read this book.

Grahame Green’s intriguing book

Colm Toíbin’s The Magician and summer sunsets

August 3, 2022

Note: Some of the text has come out larger than others.

I recently finished reading Colm Tóibín’s superb book The Magician (Guardian review) which fictionalises the life of the famous German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s book begins in the German city of Lübeck when Mann is aged 15 and takes us through Mann’s adolescence and adulthood until Mann is 80, when he dies in 1955. The novel focuses on two main themes, Mann’s family and his wife’s family and their children; and the developments in German culture and politics in the twentieth century. So the novelist of the present day who is writing about a novelist and major cultural figure in Germany, has a large canvas to paint and a story, which is complicated at times to tell. To Tóibín’s credit, the reader is entranced by the story being told here i.e. this is no dry literary biography and we are taken seamlessly from event to event in Mann’s life. The novel takes us through the birth of Mann’s children and his work as a novelist, although Tóibín does not dwell on the writing of or the content of Mann’s famous works such as Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain which led to him being recognised as a major international author.

The book also presents us with Mann as thinker and philosopher and his reflections on his beloved Germany. One of the most convincing elements of the book is Mann’s horror at the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and his struggle to resist attempts to get him to speak out against Hitler’s regime while he is still in his homeland. The Manns are forced to flee to Switzerland and then the USA after WW2. A lesser novelist might have made this an overly detailed analysis of Mann’s thinking but Tóibín cleverly interweaves family events and arguments, with major political events from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel could have been overly sentimental e.g. about Mann’s return to Germany in the 1950s, but the author avoids this. The Magician is a major work of fiction for our times and it is a fascinating and intriguing read from start to finish. You will struggle to put it down so go and buy it as soon as you can.

Superb novel about Thomas Mann (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

This summer in Scotland has been mostly sunny with temperatures above average. We have also had some spectacular sunsets on some evenings. Each year, I try to capture the perfect sunset, but of course there is no such thing and I am sure that if you showed ten of my sunset photos to ten people and asked them to choose their favourite, you might well get ten different answers. Sunsets are art from the west and thus open to interpretation. The photo below shows the setting sun just above the horizon and spreading its light across the sky. I like the combination of the low sun with its extended arms and the bulbous clouds higher in the sky. When the sun set, the sky was flooded with colour.

Bulbous clouds and setting sun

The photo below shows the spectacular colouration in the sky that we got later on in the same evening. The yellow sky above where the sun set has extended and gone into reds and purples, with the calm sea coloured by the sky. I like the darker, elongated cloud stretching over the town’s profile and looking like a sea creature making its way gently through the ocean. The more you look at this photo, the more colours and shapes you see. I found it fascinating.

Purple sea after sunset

The final sunset photo below shows a late evening mackerel sky – a sign of good weather the next day – hovering like an abstract painting with the white and yellow streaks below. The broken clouds are like brush strokes done by an impressionist, as is the more compact line of cloud below. As above, the colours are many and varied in texture and shape and this emphasises the dark solidity of the town at the bottom. The photo was taken about ten o’clock with darkness still an hour away.

Mackerel sky over Dunbar

Looking and sunsets and what comes after always has me recalling the repetitive beat and very recognisable guitar introduction to the Kinks song Waterloo Sunset, so enjoy the video below.

Finally, can I recommend that you all check out The Mack Walks, a blog done by my former co-author John Mackenzie and his wife Alison Mackenzie. It features a number of walks in Scotland and is well worth a look.

Walk up Traprain Law and Richard Flanagan’s Living Sea of Waking Dreams

June 19, 2022

We had a walk up Traprain Law, which was last featured on the blog in 2021.  Traprain Law (good photos) is a volcanic structure dating back some 345 million years. The National Museum of Scotland (good video) has a display of Roman silver found when the Law (Scots for hill) was quarried in the early 20th century. The silver was at first thought to be stolen, but research in the last few years has shown that it was likely to have been payment to the local Votadini tribe in return for work done. We normally walk around the foot of the Law and take the Low Level Walk – see photo below but decided to take the Summit Walk this time. My wife – the runner – is much fitter than me, but although it was a hard climb in parts, I was not too far behind at the top.

Map of Traprain Law walks (click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

You get a 360 degree view of the verdant East Lothian countryside from the top. It was very windy when we got to the summit and you could hardly hear yourself speak. The sun appeared only intermittently, so you had to keep moving to stay warm. The photo below shows the cairn at the top, just next to the Trig Point and this site tells the history of the Trig Pillars, which were established as a series of small concrete edifices for “the retriangulation of Great Britain”, starting in 1936, to aid more accurate mapping. The rough stones in the photo have been added to over the years to make a stone circle. The view is looking north and, on the coastline, you can see North Berwick Law (good photos) in the centre and the Bass Rock to the right. Unfortunately, the Bass Rock, home to 60,000 gannets each summer, has been struck by a strain of Avian Flu – read more here. Dead gannets and other seabirds have been found on the shores around Dunbar – a distressing sight.

Stone cairn at the top of Traprain Law.

In the photo below, looking south, you can see the proverbial forty shades of green in the fields beyond the rocky outcrop at the edge of the Law. The lighter shades of green are the barley fields which gradually change from green to yellow to straw colour over a period of weeks, before the harvest in late July/August. The darker green fields are of wheat, planted after the barley, but these will change colour also. The brown fields on view are potato/tattie fields and these fields will now – about 3 weeks later – will also now be green, with the shaws well established. Beyond the fields are the Lammermuir Hills, with the dark, wooded areas clearly on show. East Lothian is known as the Garden of Scotland because of its fertile soils and you can see why in this photo.

Looking south from Traprain Law

It was too windy for a video this time, but I took the video below at the same time last year.

I am a big fan of the Australian writer Richard Flanagan and I have read several of his novels over the years. I reviewed his Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North here. The book I finished recently is The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Review) and, true to form, this novel is much different from previous novels. The book is at heart, a story of a family and three siblings dealing with the hospitalisation of their Mother Francie, who is dying. The youngest – and poorest – child Tommy wants his mother to have a peaceful death, with careful medical attention to relieve the pain. The other two siblings, the much wealthier and highly educated Anna and Terzo, refuse to accept that their mother should die at all, and use their influence with contacts in the medical profession to put pressure on the hospital doctors to prolong Francie’s life, despite the pain and other side effects of the treatment.

The story is told mainly from Anna’s point of view. She deludes herself – in this reviewer’s opinion – that what she is doing is right, but I got the distinct impression that Anna feels that if her mother is allowed to die, she might die also. There is cruelty in the way Anna and Terzo prolong Francie’s life, focusing more on their own selfish desires than on their mother’s obvious pain and delirium. There is also cruelty to be seen in the backdrop to the novel, in which Australia is being threatened with destruction by wildfires and potential animal extinction. Flanagan the author is asking us – not just Australians – to pay more attention to climate change, rather than the constant demands of the digital age – Anna is obsessed with her phone’s Twitter feeds. There is an engrossing plot but no spoilers here.

Flanagan is a wonderfully expressive and sometimes poetic novelist. As Francie declines, Anna sees her mother’s body as “no more than a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in spider’s web”. On a more pleasant note, Flanagan describes parts of his native Tasmania, with Anna’s father looking at “the glittering azure of the sea, the ultramarine of the mountains, and the bands between of ploughed volcanic earth and vibrant forest and crops rippling in the racing cloud shadow”. A eucalyptus tree’s “writhing branches reminded Anna of a woman’s fingers stretching into a new glove” – the reader has to admire Flanagan’s imagination and ease of expression.

There is hope in the book, despite its dire background and hospital episodes, both for family relations and possibly for society IF we can control the effects of climate change and use digital technology to better and more productive us. A Richard Flanagan book is always worth reading and I urge you to read this one and appreciate the talent of this extraordinary novelist.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

Tree felling at Spott House and Thomas Kenneally’s The Dickens Boy

March 7, 2022

We went for another walk at Spott House (good photos) recently and we could see a large crane near the house from the bottom of the drive. We could also hear the insistent buzz of a chainsaw. We walked up to the top of the drive and veered right and right again up past the small herd of Orkney sheep (good photos) and the glamping pods (good photos) which have stunning views over the countryside and out to sea. On the way back past the back of the house, we could see the crane again but also two men halfway up one of the large trees. In the photo below, the two men have attached a chain around the tree, with the plan to cut the tree in half. This may have been periodical pruning of the trees or the top half may have been damaged in Storm Arwen (illustrated article) in late November. The chain looks as if it might be part of the tree, with ridged instead of smooth branches.

Affixing the chain to the tree at Spott House

In the photo below, the man on the left is checking that the chain is in place and anticipating a signal from the crane driver. The chainsaw man is poised for cutting. The small crane on the left and the tree on the right look as if they are leaning towards each other and the branches of the tree are delineated against the light blue and what became an increasingly pink sky. In the summer, when the tree is in full leaf, most of the sky beyond will not be visible, and the pink sky will arrive hours later.

Tree fellers at Spott House (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The chainsaw man then started up his machine and the elegant bird song to which we had been listening, was drowned out. In the photo below, you can see that the chainsaw has been applied to the tree and it only took seconds for the saw to separate the upper part of the tree from the remaining trunk. The tentacles on the tree below the cut still stretched out in their mazy patterns, like rivulets of water in between the rocks as the tide comes in. When the crane and the men disappeared, normality was resumed and gradually the bird song could be heard again in the stillness of the day.

Chainsaw in action at Spott House

I took the video below but did not add any commentary because of the chainsaw noise. You will see the man on the lift machine signalling to the crane driver to separate the trunk and raise the amputated part of the limb into the sky and away.

I have read a number of Thomas Kenneally‘s novel over many years but I have not featured one on the blog. His latest novel The Dickens Boy (review) is set in Australia and tells the story of Charles Dickens’ youngest son Edward – known as Plorn – who was sent there to work on a sheep farm in the bush. You can read Kenneally’s intriguing recreation of the travels of Plorn and his brother here. Kenneally was – and remains in his 80s – a wonderful storyteller and the reader is drawn into the life of young Dickens and his efforts to “prove himself” (as he puts it) to his father. We see Plorn learning the ways of the outback sheep station from his employers and his Aboriginal fellow employee. There is a mixture of life in the outback – the work, the food and the culture of the Aboriginals – as well as in intriguing examination, told in many flashbacks – of the character of the great novelist himself. Dickens emerges as a good father but also a man of contradictions. Plorn and his brother cannot escape their father’s fame in Australia, where he is revered, and on Dickens’ death, they travel to Sydney to celebrations of their father’s life. Some of these are excruciatingly boring and embarrassing to Plorn, who has not read his father’s books but is inevitably questioned about them.

Back at the sheep station, there is an incident with bushrangers who take over the farm with the intent to steal. This is well told by Kenneally although the way the bushrangers leave is perhaps implausible. We see Plorn growing up from the age of sixteen, to becoming a potential sheep station owner himself. To what extent the story is historically true is irrelevant here. This is a cracking tale which draws the reader along and takes the reader into the atmosphere, weather, cultural practices and personal relationships in Australia’s outback and its cities. Having taught and lived in rural Australia and spent time in its major cities, this was familiar territory for me and added to my enjoyment of it. Even if you have no experience of Australia, this is still am intriguing read. I highly recommend that you buy a copy and enjoy the book.

Kenneally’s excellent novel

Snowdrops in Lochend Woods and Thomas Hardy’s poems of 1912-13

February 25, 2022

Every year I try to go somewhere different to take photos of the snowdrops which now adorn our woods and gardens. In 2021, I posted this description of the snowdrops at Smeaton Lake. I also remind you each year of Alice Oswald’s uniquely beautiful poem The Snowdrop – read here by Andrew Motion, accompanied by some elegant and graceful photos, including a close-up one of raindrops on the flower. I have just found another site in which you can look at and listen to – “The Snowdrop: An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring”. Produced by Cambridge University Botanic Garden (good photos), this site is well worth exploration for its information, stunning photography and The Snowdrop – with lyrics – read by Sandie Cain, the garden’s Horticultural Learning Coordinator. I make no apologies for once again quoting from Oswald’s poem “Yes, she’s no more than a drop of snow/ on a green stem…. But what a beauty, what a mighty power/ of patience kept intact is now in flower”.

This year, on the advice of my wife who had seen the snowdrops emerge and spread while out running, I went up to Dunbar’s Lochend Woods. As you enter the woods from the east, there are small clumps of snowdrops scattered about, but these are a mere smattering of white and some are barely visible. If you walk towards the end of the woods to the south, you come across the heavily populated area – like going from the countryside into a large urbanised area. The photo below gives a close-up view of a peaceful and sedate looking snowdrop community. As ever, the heads – gorgeous white bells – are bowed as the flowers maintain their private thoughts. The photo also shows the forest floor environment in which the snowdrops grow during their relatively short lives. Not only are there brown leaves from last autumn but the green, spiky, storm-blown mini-branches of the neighbouring fir trees. The sunlight adds to the aesthetics of the photo, emphasising the brilliant whiteness of the snowdrop heads.

Snowdrops and leaves in Lochend Woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

One of the pleasures of walking through the woods at this time of year – on a sunny day as I did – is not only the sun on the snowdrops but the shadows cast by the trees. The sun highlights the snowdrops’ glistening white heads and verdant green stems and produces long, pipe like shadows stretching effortlessly across the forest floor. The photo below shows a group of snowdrops at the base of the tree and other patches spread across the ground. The huge base of the tree trunk has some dead ivy branches which still snake around the tree, sending out smaller stems in a criss-cross pattern. The shadows to the right of the tree are solid and tunnel-looking, temporarily darkening the earth around the flowers, before moving on during the day.

Snowdrops and shadows in Lochend Woods

I took this video of the wider area of the snowdrops, the trees, the shadows and the sunshine.

I recently listened to a podcast of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time which focused on the poetry of Thomas Hardy. My particular interest in this podcast was my memory of studying Hardy as a student – many years ago at the University of Edinburgh. I bought the book of Hardy’s Selected Poems (cover in the photo below) as a first year student, but I have dipped into it many times over the years, reading in particular the section entitled Poems of 1912-13 which are featured in the podcast. There are some outstanding poems here, with many memorable lines. The problem with the poems comes in the question of Hardy’s personal background to the poems. Hardy’s wife Emma died in 1912 but the couple had been estranged for many years. Hardy then married Florence Dugdale, with whom he had been in a relationship before his wife’s death. The poems represent an outpouring of grief on Hardy’s part, as he remembers his younger wife and their happier moments. Some have questioned whether Hardy genuinely grieved his wife’s death but Tim Armstrong suggests that the sequence of poems “remains one of the greatest and most personal elegiac sequences written in English” and “a uniquely honest image of the poet struggling with his own grief and remorse”.

It is the language of the poems and the images in them that interests me most, rather than how genuinely or not Hardy grieved his wife. Here are some examples of my favourite lines. From The Voice “Thus I; faltering forward/ Leaves around me falling/ Wind oozing through the thorn from norward/ And the woman calling” – note the wind oozing as opposed to the usual blowing. From Beeny Cliff “O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,/ And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free” – here we see expressive use of colours of the sea – opal and sapphire – and alliteration in wandering western and flapping free – Hardy almost paints a scene for us here. In the same poem, the waves are “engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say” – listen to the sound of the waves next time you are on a beach and think about Hardy’s onomatopoeia in engrossed, ceaseless and say. From We sat at the Window “And the rain came down in silken strings/ That Swithin’s day. Each gutter and spout/ babbled unchecked…”. This is a superb image of the rain as silken strings and the gutters are – like the sea above – babbling. You can read many of Hardy’s poems e.g. Beeny Cliff here on the Thomas Hardy Society website. You will not be disappointed.

My well thumbed copy of Hardy’s poems

Dunbar harbour without and with boats and Hannah Lowe’s The Kids

February 16, 2022

Recently, when I walked from my house along to Dunbar harbour, I came across a phenomenon that I had never seen before i.e. the harbour had no boats or yachts or dinghies in it. It was vessel free and empty looking, as this is usually a thriving hive of activity with boats coming and going, fishermen mending nets and tourists and locals strolling along the harbourside. The photo below shows the deserted harbour, looking as if it was in some post-apocalypse Sci-Fi novel in which every boat and ship in the world has vanished overnight. There was quite a swell in the harbour and I assume that the fisher-folk and yacht club members were expecting a storm which might cause damage. While this open stretch of water has its own merits and beauty, I am so used to seeing the fishing boats in it, I kept thinking that there was something missing.

A deserted Dunbar harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I walked over the harbour bridge and past The Battery (good photos) to the end of the harbour and took the photo below. On the right hand side, you can see the buoys which are normally attached to small yachts that are kept in the harbour for part of the year. Beyond that, you see the ruins of Dunbar Castle (good photos), a former stronghold of the Earls of Dunbar in the 15th century and to the left of the castle, the indoor swimming pool, which was an archaeological site before being built. To the right of the castle is the large and impressive sea wall, originally built in 1844 and extensively (and expensively for the town) repaired in 1854. You can now walk along just below the top of the sea wall and get superb views across the Firth of Forth. This is also a popular site for fishing and in the summer, you can often see a line of rods with their lines cast over the top of the harbour wall.

Empty harbour from the north east side

I went back to the harbour two days later and normality was somewhat restored, with some fishing boats back in their usual berths. There was much less cloud in the sky on my return and this clear blue sky had turned the harbour water from grey-blue to shining blue. As the photo below shows, the water was much calmer and this allowed a harbourside stroller to see the brilliant reflections in the water. There are a plethora of reflections here – the white, blue and red of the smaller boat beneath the castle, the harbour wall and ladder to its right and, in front of the boat’s reflections, the castle walls are a blur of Impressionist painting. To the right of the photo, you can see the circles created by an emerging eider duck.

Shimmering reflection in Dunbar harbour

Moving further back, I took the photo below and, as you can see, the castle wall reflections appear to have stretched out into the harbour. The fishing boat on the left is the Oor Millie (details) and it has its own crazy reflections in front of it. The eider duck had dived down again in search of food and left the rings in the water, decorating the castle wall reflections with circles. This was at a fairly low tide and you can see the mark of the high tide on the wall below the castle. The blue sign is for the harbourmaster’s office – the square building with the window to the right of the castle and overlooking the harbour mouth. So, a beautiful, albeit cold day for a walk at the ever-changing harbour, where you will never see the exact same colour of the water or exact reflections, but you will always appreciate them.

Reflections and circles in Dunbar harbour

Hannah Lowe‘s book of poems The Kids was not only the Poetry Book Society’s Choice for Autumn 2021 but it also won the Costa Book of the Year for 2021. The poet states “I wanted to pay homage to the teenagers I taught over years at a sixth form college in London. Looking back, I saw how much I’d learned from them”. This is a very accessible but also quite subtle book of poetry. The Costa judges commented ““It’s joyous, it’s warm and it’s completely universal”. It might be patronising to say that this book would appeal to people who do not normally read poetry but it would certainly be a good start. Lowe has some exquisite lines in the book e.g. “the ruby blot of lips/ where last year’s girls had kissed the schoolhouse brick”; “Why did no one warn me about Monique – / kiss-curls and diamanté nails, Queen Bee/ who fixed me with a fuck you stare”; “Boredom hangs like a low cloud in the classroom”; and “In the ruby light of The Odeon, Leicester Square”.

The second section of the book deals with Lowe’s own school days as an adolescent and learning the piano with Miss Forbes and “her parlour with its sills/ of old cracked china and dried camellias”. There is a link to her future career as Lowe writes that with Miss Forbes “I learnt what learning was for”. The final section is about Lowe’s son Rory growing up “and the iPad is a raft/ he sails on from breakfast to lunch and on…”. This book is what one reviewer calls “A joy to read” and its mixture of teaching and learning – particularly learning – about the classroom but also life itself, is uplifting.

Hannah Lowe’s intriguing poems

Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and walk to the Whitesands and Barns Ness

February 6, 2022

It is unlikely that I would have bought a book which focuses on elevator inspectors in the USA in the 1950s had the author not been Colson Whitehead, best known as the writer of The Underground Railroad (Review). The Intuitionist (Review) is Whitehead’s debut novel and there are inevitably some passages that are overwritten and could have been edited out. Despite this, the tale of Lila Mae West, the first black elevator inspector and her struggles to be accepted not only in a predominantly male – but also white male – profession, is very well told. Whitehead has invented two theories of elevator design, succinctly put in the above review ” the Empiricists, who plod through their inspections one material criterion at a time, and the Intuitionists, who take a more mystical, gestalt approach to the detection of safety flaws”. Lila Mae is in the Intuitionist camp and there is an election for the president of the Guild of inspectors which involves dirty tricks by both camps. The main thrust of the story relates to aspects of class and race but Whitehead, in undramatic prose, shows us how limited life could be – and maybe still is – for black people seeking to improve their education and economic status. There are some plot twists before the end of the novel involving Lila Mae, who is underestimated by her colleagues, as she is both female and black, and these keep the reader intrigued. Lila Mae’s search for the hidden manuscripts of James Fulton, possible inventor of the perfect elevator which could transform city buildings, means she has to pit her wits against violent opponents and Whitehead keeps the story alive with incidents relating to this. The Intuitionist may not be to everyone’s taste and there is an overload of information on elevator design in some parts, but this is a novel worth seeking out and reading.

Colson Whitehead’s debut novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We took a walk on a clear and sunny, if chilly, afternoon recently to The Whitesands (good photo) which is two miles from Dunbar, going east. We went there at high tide so did not see the wide stretch of beach shown in the photo on the above link. What we did see was the curve of the bay and the fairly calm tide easing its way to the shore, in a succession of white waves. The clear sky above was reflected in the water, with its multiple shades of subtle blue. There is a bench near where this photo was taken and you could sit and watch the waves making their way to the shore in a very orderly fashion on the day we visited. if we had come to the same spot two days later, the waves would have been angrily hurtling themselves – 1.5 metres high – in a desperate looking attempt to get to the sand. In the foreground, you can see the sunlit grasses, in their winter guise, which were gently swaying in the wind.

Whitesands beach near Dunbar

We followed the path along towards the lighthouse, keeping near the shore and going through a copse of bushes – some thorny – with the Barns Ness Lighthouse (history) growing ever larger as we approached. I have featured the lighthouse on the blog before and the photo below is taken from this post. The Canmore site above describes the lighthouse as ” A tall, slightly tapering; circular-section tower with circular lantern with triangular panes and domed top”. A friend of mine recalled his uncle telling him that during WW2, his uncle was part-time lighthouse keeper and part time soldier, with one his duties being to man a machine-gun from the top of the lighthouse, in case of a German invasion.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

On the day of our visit, we walked past the lighthouse and I took the photo below looking back towards the lighthouse and the keepers’ cottages. The Canmore site describes the cottages – “The keepers’ houses are, as usual, single-storey, flat-roofed structures, harled, with the quoins exposed”. Quoin is a new word to me and means “an external angle of a wall or building”. You can now rent one of the extensively renovated cottages. Just below the cottages, you can see the ruins of a building and this may have been some kind of storage area or possibly a house predating the lighthouse. You can also see the well worn path and the very rocky shore to the right of the photo. The lighthouse is kept in very good condition and its shining white and yellow paints stand out against the blue sky.

Barns Ness Lighthouse and keepers’ cottages

Not much further along the shore from the photo above, you will find a wrecked barge – photo below. The barge was used by the navy during WW2 for target practice and it was much larger than what remains now. You can see a large metal ring attached to the right of the barge and this was used to tow the barge into position for the navy to shell it. Much of the wood has rotted away but the solid iron rivets remain in place. Above the barge and to the right of the photo, you can see Torness Power Station. There is a stretch of beach to the right of the photo and this is often visited by oystercatchers, dunlin, turnstones and the occasional curlew. This is a popular walking area and part of this blog post (good photos) shows the walk from Barns Ness to the power station and beyond. On a cold sunny day like this, you can enjoy the benefits of the outdoors at Barns Ness.

Barge used by the navy

Carrie Ackroyd’s Bird of the Month and Mick Herron’s Slough House

January 16, 2022

We are not quite finished with 2021 as yet as I want to feature the calendar on my wall for last year. The artist Carrie Ackroyd did the illustrations for The Oldie Magazine‘s Bird of the Month calendar. The January bird was the Ptarmigan which has the scientific name of Lagopus Millaisi. The calendar notes that the Gaelic word tarmachan means croaker and that Sir Robert Sibbald added the p “to look posh Greek like ‘psychology’ etc.”. Ackroyd’s painting for January 2021 below shows the birds in their winter clothes, with perfect camouflage for the snowy terrain. The birds look alert, as if on the lookout for danger. I also like the large white dots to represent the falling snow. Ackroyd has a knack of making you look at the shapes in the painting e.g. with what teasingly looks like two black headed birds in the landscape near the top right. Also, the flow of the snowy and non-snowy terrain is suggestive of undulating hills where the birds might live.

Ptarmigan by Carrie Ackroyd (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

March saw the appearance of goldeneye ducks, with the muscular sounding scientific name of Bucephala clangula. The calendar tells us that goldeneye are one of the “three main fresh-water diving ducks in Britain” and they can number up to 30,000 with flocks of wintering birds arriving in late autumn. This blog post tells us that bucelpha means bull-headed and “The male’s head is a stunning emerald green, while the female’s is brown”. The male ducks also have extravagant courtship displays, leaning their heads fully back and splashing water behind them. Carrie Ackroyd has chosen to give all the birds black heads, but retaining the golden eye. These birds look fairly glum – maybe rejected males? – and going about their business with bored looks on their faces. The reflections of the elegant and graceful trees in what looks like a fast moving stream are a perceptive addition to this painting/print (Ackroyd does both), with the trees stretching upwards and downwards at the same time. The yellow in the water links effectively with the background yellow behind the trees. The ducks look on indifferently.

Goldeneye by Carrie Ackroyd

The month of May brought to our attention the song thrush, with the perhaps unfortunate (to some) scientific name of Turdus philomelos. The turdus means from the thrush family and philomelos means friend of ease and when you hear a song thrush singing in your garden, you can understand why. The calendar quotes from Robert Browning’s Home thoughts from Abroad (full poem) “That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/ Lest you should think he never could recapture/ The first fine careless rapture!”. The careless rapture fits very well with the friend of ease. The calendar also notes the song thrush’s amazing range, stating that it has its own repertoire, but that it also copies other birds songs and can have “100 different phrases [with] repetition meaning it sings a total of 1 million phrases in a year”. This illustration below is the brightest of all the months’ pictures. The song thrush is in full voice here and Ackroyd has captured its features – “Tawny brown backs, creamy white and buff speckled front” (RSPB) – very well. The white flowers – maybe hawthorn? – surrounding the bird also reflect its brightness of look and song. As with all of Ackroyd’s paintings/prints, there are a multitude of interesting shapes on view here.

Song thrush by Carrie Ackroyd

You can listen this wonderful bird in full song below and if you look back to the picture above, you can almost hear Ackroyd’s song thrush going through its won unique repertoire.

I am not usually attracted to spy novels, which I find are often unnecessarily complicated and focus more on plot than on characterisation, but I picked up Mick Herron‘s Slough House (review). The title refers to the offices – in central London – where failed spies have been sent and are under the supervision and derision of the larger than life Jackson Lamb. The political background of the novel is two fold – the Novichok poisoning in the UK and Brexit. Lamb has an ongoing battle with Diana Taverner, the head of the secret service and she organises the assassination of a Russian agent in revenge for the poisonings. Taverner is then manipulated by Peter Judd – a former government minister thinly disguised as Boris Johnson. The situation for the “slow horses” – the failed spies – gets worse as two of them get murdered. It’s an entertaining, fairly light read and Herron has written other novels featuring the same characters and these have been very popular apparently. I doubt very much if I will be buying another Mick Herron but if you like your spy stories and amusing characters – some of them anyway – then the novels might be for you. As you will see blow, Ian Rankin is a fan, so that might influence you.

Lynn Rocks revisited and Pat Barker’s Noonday

November 18, 2021

I last featured the natural phenomenon that is the Lynn Rocks here on the blog in 2018. The name Lynn Rocks may be an alternative version of Linn Rocks, in that the history of the village of East Linton published by the local history society, is entitled By the Linn Rocks (illustrated book online). The rocks are located at the edge of the attractive village of East Linton (good photos) and you can see the rocks from the impressive bridge as you enter the village from the east. The bridge is known as the Old Tyne Bridge (old photos) and the original bridge is thought to have been built between 1548 and 1560. The bridge was heightened and strengthened in the 19th century when “The arch-rings and spandrels were tied with rods and straps and concrete laid on the extrados of the arches”. New terminology for me here, so I looked at various sources. The arch ring “provides the main support for the arch” and the spandrel is “the area between the arch ring and the roadway”. The extrados is “the outer curve of surface of an arch or vault” on a bridge or in a building.

The rocks are situated on the River Tyne over which the bridge was built. There is always some movement of water through the rocks, but when there has been heavy rain, as there had been on the day of my visit, the water becomes a torrent. The photo below shows the main part of the rocks over which the river flows, and then dives down between the rocks. When the river is calm, you can see many more rocks and you can walk across to where the rocks are in the photo.

Tyne in spate (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The video below shows the onrushing water and you can hear the noise of the fast flowing river. I have not added any commentary on this video, but you can see how fast the water was running and how it was transformed into a raging torrent once it reached the high point of the rocks. When the river passes the rocks, the area to the west of the rocks – to the left in the video – is normally like a pond, but here you can see that the water was still speeding and swirling.

Leaping water at the Lynn Rocks

I then stood back and looked back towards the bridge. In the photo below, you can see on the bottom left that an uprooted tree and branches have been swept down the river, from who knows where, and have become stuck, The bridge is an impressive sight, as is the four storey stone building attached to the bridge. You have to admire the stonemasons who built the bridge and the building as these would have been built without modern machinery, and probably in dangerous conditions i.e. without today’s Health and Safety rules.

Looking back to the Old Tyne Bridge

I then left the riverside and walked up to the bridge itself. On the other side of the bridge from the Lynn Rocks, you look at the flowing river Tyne and above is another bridge – the railway bridge (history). The photo below shows the abnormally wide and fast flowing river and the latticed metal on the railway bridge above. I like this photo particularly for the way I have captured the sun on the water and the way your eye is taken up to where the river narrows. I wold love to say that this was a careful composition on my part but ….. Also in the photo are the bright sky, the light, slightly puffy clouds and the tall, still tree at the left hand side. on the right hand side, you can see part of a relatively recently built house on the site that used to be the yard for local joinery firm McArthur and Son.

Up river to the railway bridge at East Linton

I took another video, this time from the Old Tyne Bridge, looking towards the Lynn Rocks. I have left in the sound of the water and added a commentary via Animotica. I was lucky with the sunshine on the day and the ever-changing spectacle that is the river in spate.

I reviewed Pat Barker‘s Silence of the Girls on the blog in 2019 and she is recognised widely as a very accomplished writer. I recently finished her outstanding novel of the London blitz – Noonday (review) and this confirmed her reputation as an excellent story teller. The main protagonist in the novel is the artist Elinor Brooke and the novel begins at her fairly wealthy mother’s home in the countryside. There are flashbacks to WW1, including a painting of her late brother who died in the Great War. Her mother is dying and Barker captures the strain between Elinor and her sister. The main part of the novel is set in London in 1940, during the worst of the German air-raids over the city. While Elinor and her husband Paul are the main characters, the blitz and its often terrible aftermath is itself a major character in the novel. Some of the most moving and vivid scenes in the novel relate to the rescue scene. Elinor drives an ambulance and takes part in seeking out people trapped in their bombed houses. Barker’s descriptions of such scenes are gripping. “Bombers went on droning overhead, bursts of orange light obliterating the stars. The men were sawing through a beam that had fallen across a mound of rubble and was impeding progress. Another voice started up inside – not the child’s voice though -“. Inside the house are a mother, a daughter and a grandmother but the reader does not who, if any of them, will survive. The tension builds in a number of scenes, including some featuring Paul as part of a rescue team. Barker takes us directly to the scenes, e.g. Paul and his mate gingerly climbing up a potentially unsafe staircase and hearing parts of the roof falling above them. Thus we realise that the bombing is dangerous not just to the trapped, but to their rescuers.

This novel is also about relationships, in particular between Elinor and Paul. Their house is partly destroyed and they cannot move back in. The marriage is threatened by an affair but there is a convincing reconciliation at the end of the novel. There is a very convincing and potentially terrifying scene at the close of the novel with Elinor and her co-driver going to a bomb scene and being faced with escaped horses “galloping towards them out of the orange streaked darkness, their manes and tails on fire…. their great bright, battering hooves striking sparks on the road”. I found these scenes perhaps more convincing than the personal relationships, although the Guardian reviewer above disagrees. This is a fascinating and gripping story, superbly written by one of our foremost novelists. Go out and buy it.