Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Dreels in two directions

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

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

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

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

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Spider and wild garlic

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

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

 

 

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Homegoing and a brief visit to the Botanic Gardens

April 14, 2018

I have recently enjoyed reading Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing. For most of this novel, you would not guess that you are reading an author’s first book, so assured is Gyasi’s writing. The book’s early chapters are focused on slavery in its African setting and Gyasi paints a vivid picture of the mechanics of the slave trade e.g. tribes capturing men and women from villages and selling them to the British, who live in a white fort. There are also some gripping scenes where slaves are captured and kept in the castle’s dungeons in horrible conditions. The key characters at this stage are Effia who is sold to a British captain and slave trader as a wife, and her half sister Esi who is captured as a slave and taken to the castle’s overcrowded dungeons. The chapters that follow tell the stories of seven generations of these two women, firstly in West Africa and subsequently in the USA. There are further harrowing scenes of the mistreatment of slaves in the cotton plantations in the southern states of the USA. This is contrasted by the stories of how the characters meet their future husbands and wives, and Gyasi’s writing is vivid and moving, but never sentimentalised. The later chapters on the lives of black Americans in more recent times are less convincing, with Gyasi’s lack of experience as a novelist showing through at times. Despite this, Homegoing is a brilliant book and well worth reading. Some of the characters will live in your memory for quite a while.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our visit to Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens was cut short by heavy rain but in the short time we were there, we saw some exquisite spring flowers and shrubs. There is so much to see in the gardens – and entry is free except for some special exhibitions. You can get a flavour of the gardens and the myriad of plants to be seen all year round in this short video. What first attracted my attention were the large buds opening on a variety of trees. In the photo below, this close up of a bud bursting into leaf seems to show the tremendous energy that the tree has to exert to produce this new elegance. There is also a beautiful range of colours on display here, from the vivid purple at the bottom to the delicate greens and yellows at the top. You also get the impression that once the leaves open fully, the emerging kernel – partially hidden by the leaves at present – will expand and provide another show of colour. Unfortunately, I did not take a note of which this tree this is from. Any arborists (ahem) budding or otherwise out there who can tell me?

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Bursting bud in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Then it started to rain. It looked like a shower, so we sheltered under trees. The one I took cover beside was chamaecyparis lawsoniana aka Lawson’s Cypress and a very impressive tree it was. Looking up – photo below – there appeared to be multiple trunks to this tree, with a plethora of branches appearing further up. Also, look at the all the different colours in the tree trunks. You do not see these colours until you look closely. A magnificent specimen.

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Lawson cypress tree in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

The rain stopped for a while and then we saw the first rhododendrons,  some which were in bud while others had put on their full, glorious display. In the photo below, the blossoms are crowding each other, desperate that their pink flower will be seen by the passers-by. There is an elegant shape to the tree/bush and the pink is shown off to good effect by the greens of the trees behind.

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Rhododendrons at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Closer up, you can see how delicate the rhododendron flowers are. In this photo, the individual cells of the flower are still compact in little pink bells, with the stigma protruding from the circle of anthers in side. Again, there is a complimentary contrast with the beautifully structured green leaves above and below. You can also see the later buds which are still to open.

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

At the next rhododendron bush, which was much more low-lying than the one above, I took a close up photo of a flower. The compact bells have gone and the flower is displaying its petals in a flourish, showing off the purple dots and dashes normally hidden and taking the eye away from the attention-seeking stigma.

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

When the rain started to pour and the sky was completely grey, we gave up but this brief visit was still memorable and it leaves so much more to see in the next visit.

Snow, stormy sea and His Bloody Project

March 9, 2018

Last week, here in the UK we had what the media were calling “The Beast from the East” (good photos). We have not had sustained snowfall here for about 8 years and the difference this time was that the wind chill was often between -6 and -10 degrees. Around Dunbar, many roads were blocked and delivery lorries could not get through, resulting in a complete absence of milk and bread in the town. Interestingly, from a social point of view, the snow meant that people were not driving their cars, so there was an increase in the number of people walking to the local shops, as opposed to driving to the large supermarket on the edge of town. There was also more social interaction between people walking around, with older people commenting that this was what the High Street used to be like before nearly everybody had a car. My own research into shopping in Dunbar in the 1950s involves interviewing people and many in their 80s and 90s remembered shopping as being – for women mainly – a walking experience. One common misapprehension was that this Siberian type weather was not caused by global warming i.e. global warming was interpreted as the world getting warmer. The fact was that temperatures at the North Pole were above freezing and the cumulative effect of this, plus the direction of the Jet Stream, made it much colder here than normal.

From our back door, the scene looked like this. You can see that the beach is half covered in snow at this moment, but look at the roofs of the houses. The wind was so strong that the snow was continually swept off the roofs. Half an hour later and most of the snow on the beach had been blown away. The sand reappeared and there was only about a yard of snow near the walls.

 

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Snow on the beach in Dunbar (Click to enlarge all photos)

Then the tide came in and what a tide it was. In the photo below, you can see, on the right hand side, the waves crashing over the main wall of Dunbar Harbour in spectacular fashion. This particular wave therefore leapt perhaps 70 feet above sea level. On the left, you can see another leap of spray, this time on to the wall of the East beach. The tide ripped along the side of the wall, covering the road with water. It was mesmerising to watch.

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Stormy sea with waves over Dunbar Harbour and the east beach wall

The next photo shows the incoming tide meeting the remains of the snow on the beach. The photo does not do justice to the tremendous strength and noise of the incoming tide. You can hear tide’s roaring on a wee video I made. It’s unedited and a bit shaky, as I get used to my new camera but you’ll get the (ahem) drift.

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Incoming tide meets snow on the beach in Dunbar

I’ve just finished reading one of the most original and enthralling novels that I’ve come across for a good while. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel, entitled His Bloody Project is rightly described as “fiendishly readable” by The Guardian reviewer. The book has the appearance of a true crime story, as it purports to be based on 19th century documents found in the Scottish highlands. The main “document” is a lengthy confession by Roddy Macrae, 17 years old, that he killed 3 people in the little village of Culduie – a real place. However, no actual murder was committed there in 1869. The novel gives a fascinating insight to the hard lives of the crofters at this time and Roddy’s confession is littered with local words, for which the author provides a glossary – another sign that this may be a “real” crime story. Words such as croman  and flaughter are used for tools used by crofters. Another telling social aspect of the novel is the attitude of some people, such as the local minister and the Edinburgh reporter at Roddy Macrae’s trial, to the crofters who are seen as uncivilised and prone to violence. The book is neatly divided up into eye-witness accounts, the confession, a section on contemporary views of insanity, the trial and an epilogue. What we see early on is that there are a number of unreliable narrators, including young Macrae. As one reviewer noted, this is not a crime novel, but a novel with a crime as its centrepiece. It’s very well written and a compulsive read. Buy it.

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Reading Raymond Chandler and the Lynn Rocks at East Linton

February 14, 2018

Looking through my bookshelves recently, I came across a novel by Raymond Chandler entitled Playback. It’s one of these books I can’t remember buying and at first I assumed that I’d read it, as it’s been on the bookshelves for a long time. It turned out that I had not read it, so I knew I was in for a treat. As an author, Raymond Chandler is better known for the crime novels which were made into films, such as The Big Sleep. The novel I have just read – Playback – was Chandler’s last and some reviewers saw it as his lightest novel in terms of plot. While this may be true, as it’s a simple story of the detective Philip Marlowe seeking out and then protecting Miss Betty Mayfield against evil men who want to exploit her fortune, the Marlowe dialogue shines through. The least successful Chandler novel featuring the wise-cracking Marlowe is still way above most other crime novels, in terms of style. Marlowe is often nowadays seen as not being very PC, in his descriptions of women but these are often insightful, from a woman’s point of view. On the 2nd page of this novel, Marlowe reflects “She wore a white belted raincoat, no hat, a well-cherished head of platinum hair… [and] a pair of blue-grey eyes that looked at me as if I’d said a dirty word”. Marlowe then finds Betty Mayfield coming off a train. Chandler writes “There was nothing to it … the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket”. Throughout the novel, Chandler has Marlowe using the idioms of the time e.g. “He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson”. Another investigator called Noble criticises Marlowe as a detective. Marlowe replies that they might get along if “you didn’t act like you thought you could lick your weight in frogspawn”. “Lick” in this contest means to beat in a fight. There’s a rather sentimental ending to the book but Marlowe’s final words are for a lawyer offering him more work. “I have a suggestion for you Mr Umney. Why don’t you go kiss a duck?” Raymond Chandler may have written his books in the 1950s, but they are still as fresh and stylish as they were then. You can find out more about the green Penguin books here.

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Playback by Raymond Chandler (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The bonnie village of East Linton (good photos) is 6 miles (just under 10K) from Dunbar and one of its most historic and enduring features is the Lynn Rocks, which can be seen from the bridge across the River Tyne at the entrance to the village. This bridge was built in the 1500s and transformed East Linton into a staging post on the main roads going west to Edinburgh and east towards the English border. The bridge (photo below) itself is a magnificent structure, with its mixture of red, brown/yellow sandstone blocks.

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The bridge at East Linton

The river flows gently under the bridge and then turns into a torrent as it approaches the gully between the rocks, seen below.

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Lynn Rocks in East Linton

There’s a drama about rushing water that fascinates us – the movement, the speed, the sound, the ever-changing colours seem to entrance us into gazing, rather than looking, into the gushing water. In the photo below, you can almost feel the movement of the water and there are a million shapes being formed and lasting only for a split second. This image reminded me of some of Ruth Brownlee’s paintings of  not just swirling waves, but swirling skies

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Fast flowing water at the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

Once the water passes the gully, all is peaceful. It is as if the water got into a furious argument with the drop in height, fumed and spumed, shouted and screamed, raged and struck out in all directions for a few seconds, and then calmed down, as the in the photo below.

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A calming river past the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

If you are ever passing through East Linton e.g. on your way to the famous Preston Mill, then you should stop and walk down to the Lynn Rocks.

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

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

 

 

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

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

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

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House boats on the River Thames

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

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

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

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

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

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

 

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

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Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

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

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Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

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

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Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

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Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

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

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Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

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

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

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Death in Summer by Benjamin Black