Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

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.

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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

My new book

May 20, 2016

This post is all about my new book entitled STRANDED: The Whales at Thorntonloch in 1950. The Stories of the People who were there. A couple of years ago, I started an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, with a view to interviewing people about shops and shopping in that era. Once I did some initial reading around the early 1950s, I realised that there were other topics I could pursue, and these included rationing (which ended in 1954) and the building of new council houses (where I was brought up) between 1949 and 1953. I was chatting with Gordon Easingwood, the chair of Dunbar and District History Society when he said “Oh 1950? That was the year of the whales”. I’d never heard of anything to do with whales in 1950, so I pursued the topic and found that 147 pilot whales had been stranded at Thorntonloch Beach on 13th May 1950. There were a fair number of press reports, some with photos but I wanted to create a more personal take on the event, so I asked around the town and found people who had been to see the whales. From the initial interviews, I formed a set of questions to ask. I did an article for the local paper and I was contacted by about 20 people from around East Lothian, Edinburgh and other counties, as well as people who now live abroad but saw the whales. There’s an excellent Facebook site called Lost Dunbar and again, I got a good response from that. People offered to be interviewed but also sent me photos of the whales. Very few people had cameras in 1950 but some photos have survived e.g. one man sent me 3 photos he’d found in his flat when he moved in.

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My new book front cover

The book has been sponsored by Community Windpower who gave me a generous grant to allow publication of the book. All profits from the book go to the History Society and not to me. The book was superbly edited by Emma Westwater of Source Design and contains many photos of the whales but also of the cranes used to remove the whales, contemporary cars, buses and bicycles. The first chapter examines press reports of the event and this is followed by chapters on how people got to Thorntonloch in 1950, what they saw when they got there, how people felt and behaved, and a final chapter on why whales strand and what might happened today if a similar stranding happened. The heart of the book is the series of oral history interviews I conducted – face to face, on Skype and via Skype phone – with people who contacted me and others who were recommended by the initial contacts.

My good friend and old school pal Nigel helped me to design a website for the book. My input was text and Nigel did all the techie stuff and what a great job he’s done. Check the website out here as it allows you to buy a book online via PayPal or credit card. I want to use social media to publicise the book, so if you have a Facebook page or you Tweet, please put details of my book on your page and encourage all your friends to do likewise.

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

I had some interesting research to do for this book. For example, I bought the photo above from The Herald and Times Group and on the back of the original photo was the photographer’s writing “Myrtle Cornwallace and Dorothy Scully from Edinburgh”. I assumed that Myrtle’s real name was Cornwallis and I looked up the name in the Edinburgh phone book and found one Cornwallis. I spoke to someone who confirmed that there was a Myrtle Cornwallis,  who now lived in Dunning, Perthshire (good photos) but of course, could not give me her phone number. I looked up Dunning and found Dunning Parish Historical Society and then I found that a Myrtle Potter had written an article for the site. I contacted the site manager and he put me in touch with Myrtle Potter, now in her 80s but with a very clear memory, so her interview added greatly to the book. In research, persistence pays.

I’ve had excellent feedback from many people about the book and although I wrote 11 books as an academic, this was like having my first book published again – that was in 1978!

London trip: Victoria and Albert Museum and T S Eliot prize readings

January 13, 2016

This posting is rather late as we went down to London for the weekend last Thursday. We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel overlooking the River Thames. It’s an impressive piece of modern engineering but you do wonder what those who built Big Ben across the river might have thought if they could see into the future and look across to the Eye.  The photo below was taken on the manual focus setting as my camera has a problem – it will not take photos with the  automatic focus on.

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The London Eye on the Southbank

On Friday, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum which is one of our favourite haunts when visiting London. It’s a vast complex of rooms with ” unrivalled collections of contemporary and historic art and design” and you can go from huge castings of Roman columns to miniature paintings and jewellery within a few minutes. We elected to go to the exhibition of the mid 19th century photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. There’s an excellent video on her on the Vimeo site by the curator of the exhibition. Cameron was a wealthy woman who took photographs of her family, her friends and acquaintances (some famous such as  Charles Darwin) and her servants, who posed for many photographs in which Cameron tried to combine art and photography. The photos below – reproduced under Creative Commons from the National Media Museum – show examples of Cameron’s remarkable work and, given that the photos are 150 years old, the clarity is remarkable.

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Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

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Miss Philpott or May Hillier by Julia Margaret Cameron

We also went to see the Europe 1600-1815 exhibition and there were some beautiful rooms on display as well as some remarkably detailed pieces of furniture such as The Endymion Cabinet (very good silent video). Another outstanding feature was the Mirrored Room with its centrepiece a harp. You can see the room and listen to an audio description here. There are endless visits to the V&A and you’ll never live long enough to see them all, but what a wonderful place to go back to.

It was a busy weekend and coincided with my nephew Sid’s 21st birthday on Sunday. On Friday evening, we went to the excellent The French Table restaurant in Surbiton and this will be featured in the next posting. The original purpose of going to London was for me to go to The Royal Festival Hall for the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry readings, featuring many of the shortlisted poets. The evening was hosted by the distinguished poet and excellent presenter Ian McMillan who joked that his taxi driver had summed up an evening of poetry readings as “Another bloody do for people who wear cravats”. As McMillan said, although the Royal Festival Hall is a huge venue, when the individual poets were reading there was an intimate feeling in the hall. It was an inspiring evening as well as being entertaining, with McMillan’s introductions and anecdotes from Don Paterson. Below is the cover of the booklet given to the audience. The winner – announced the following day at the V&A – was Sarah Howe for her collection A Loop of Jade.

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T S Eliot Prize for best collection of poetry 2015

 

 

Nora Webster, Brooklyn, late autumn harbour and sudsy sea

November 28, 2015

A double dose of author Colm Tóibín this week. Firstly, I finished reading Tóibín’s remarkable novel Nora Webster. On the face of it, this is a simple tale of a woman whose husband has died and is struggling to cope with the too early onset of widowhood. A lesser writer than Tóibín might have presented Nora Webster, a woman living in a small town in the  Irish Republic, in a sentimental and melodramatic way. However, Tóibín writes a compelling story, taking episodes from the lives of Nora and her family, their relatives, friends and (sometimes unwished for) acquaintances, and identifying the complexities of their lives. As the novel progresses, Nora becomes stronger and more independent, having to a certain extent lived in the shadow of her late husband Maurice, a popular school teacher. The author describes apparently small events in her life in detail but the prose is never dense, and the reader gains an understanding of Nora as a person e.g. her developing love of music, and not just as a mother or sister. There are some very moving scenes in this book, both in Nora’s recollection of her time with her husband and in her relationship with her two sons and (to a lesser extent) two daughters. This is a book of high quality and if you haven’t read it, then you surely must.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

This week, we went to the cinema to see Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. The film also has a very strong female character. Eilish is a young woman growing up in (like Nora Webster) a small Irish town in the Republic, but unlike Nora, she is due to emigrate to the USA at the start of the film. The story follows her to Brooklyn and highlights her homesickness and then her growing maturity and relationship with a young Italian. Eilish returns to Ireland when her sister dies and the film develops into a tale of the complexities of love and morality. I haven’t read the novel but I’m sure that Eilish’s character is more fully drawn in prose. The actress Saoirse (pr Seer – sha) Ronan is superb in the part. There is also humour in the film and while, at times, it veers on the edge of tweeness and sentimentality, it nevertheless tells a powerful story and it is certainly worth seeing.

November is nearly gone and we’ve had a taste of winter in Dunbar already with ice lining the sides of the country roads on my cycle ride last weekend. We’ve also had strong winds and big tides and this was reflected on my walk on Sunday morning. I stopped at the Old Harbour aka The Cromwell Harbour, which was built in the late 17th century. In summer, the occasional fishing boat is moored, often for work to be done. On Sunday, it was packed with fishing boats, sheltering from the heavy swell that affects the main harbour at this time of year. The boats nestled together in this sheltered haven.

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

By contrast, the Victoria Harbour which was built in the 1830s, was nearly empty. It’s an unusual sight to see so much of the water in the harbour and on Sunday, it looked abandoned, as if a storm (or malevolent sea serpent) had arrived and driven all the boats out to sea. The photos below show the harbour last Sunday and in the summertime.

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Dunbar Harbour in summer

Dunbar Harbour in summer

In my poetry calendar this week, these lines appeared:

“The ocean’s grey today, like someone’s dingy laundry,/ the flop and slosh of sudsy waves agitate on the sand,/ and the sky’s like the inside of an ashtray at some salty dive”.

They are from the poem “The Winter Sea” by the Pennsylvanian poet Barbara Crooker and I like the laundry metaphor. As I walked back from the harbour, I passed the east beach, which used to be covered in pristine sand but over the past 5 years or so, the sand has gone to be replaced with stones and often large mounds of seaweed. The waves were rushing to the shore and there was certainly a distinct “flop and slosh”.

"Flop and slosh" on the east beach

“Flop and slosh” on the east beach

Perfidia, Hopes Reservoir walk and autumn colours

October 2, 2015

I’ve just finished reading James Ellroy’s epic novel Perfidia – a huge, action-filled book, full of intrigue, plotting, counter-plotting, licit and illicit sex, violence, murder, racism, politics, jealousy and rage. There are no purely good characters in Ellroy’s novel, so don’t expect any here. There is a hero – Hideo Ashida, the Japanese detective – but he is flawed and corrupted by the system. The two other male protagonists Bill Parker and Dudley Smith who are more senior detectives, are ruthless and Smith is a murderous psychopath who gets away with his killings as he is protected by police. The action takes place in Los Angeles in 1941 with a Japanese family brutally and perhaps ritually murdered. The next day, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour and there begins a round up of suspect Japanese citizens and a general distrust/ hatred of anyone who appears to be Japanese, by large sections of the public. As the Guardian review (link above) noted “from this point on, the entire cast of Ellroy’s city chase liquor and drugs with such savagery that, by the end, you’re murmuring about how Irvine Welsh is going to have to be re-shelved with the children’s books”. So, not for the squeamish but Ellroy is such a good writer and one who captures a range of different styles of dialogue amongst his characters, and whose plot structure makes the galloping pace of the novel addictive. It’s written in Ellroy’s distinctive staccato style, with short, dramatic sentences. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is the first of a promised quartet. I bought this one in hardback as soon as it came out and will do so with the next one. Ellroy writes big novels, so a hardback does his novel more justice.

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

At the weekend, we went up the Lammermuir Hills for a 7 mile walk which is featured as a trail run in Susie Allison’s book Scottish Trail Running. We parked at the Hopes Farm and walked over the path on the low side of the Hopes Reservoir.

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

The route in the book takes you up over Lammer Law and we duly did this. The instructions in the book then become a bit vague and it’s not quite clear which track should be followed and where you are supposed to turn off. I’m sure that the orienteers among you will be scoffing – why didn’t we have a proper, detailed map? As it turned out, we took the wrong track and ended up crossing deep heather and coming back on part of our outward route. However, it was a beautiful, clear and warm day – Indian summer here this week – and we enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a stiff climb up to Lammer Law.

Path up to Lammer Law

Path up to Lammer Law

When you get to the top of the Law, you are rewarded with some spectacular views across East Lothian and over to Fife. There was a slight haze on Sunday and not clear enough for good long distance photos. There’s a clearer photo here.  We ended up doing 9.5 miles instead of 7 miles but on such a glorious day, with only a light breeze and hardly any other walkers, it was a delight. At one point, if you stopped, the only sound you could hear was the gentle gurgling of a nearby burn (stream). At another point, four faces looked suspiciously at us and identified us as non-sheep i.e. intruders into their territory. Having finished their disdainful look, the four faces turned and nonchalantly went down towards the burn.

It’s autumn now in Scotland but the mild weather has meant that most of the trees are still green although some have turned to reds and browns and their leaves are falling like snowflakes. This week’s summer-type days have produced some stunning colours in the sky just after sunset. There is no end to taking photos of the sky above our town when the sky seems lit up by rows of burning coals, in contrast to the black outlines of the buildings, as in these photos. I also love the pink sea in the 2nd photo.

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Another source of vibrant autumn colour came in the form of a male red admiral butterfly in my garden and there’s a nice contrast with the yellow top and while petals of the daisy. It’s as if the butterfly was carrying its own evening sky on its back.

Male red admiral butterfly

Male red admiral butterfly