Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

The Wall by John Lanchester and this year’s bluebells

May 6, 2020

I bought a copy of John Lanchester’s novel The Wall (review) before the lock down started, not anticipating that it might have relevance – potentially of course – today. It is a dystopian novel, set in a future where The Change – an undefined environmental global catastrophe – has transformed the UK into a totalitarian state which has built a wall all around the coast of the mainland. The wall is meant to keep out The Others whom we are led to believe are refugees trying to get into Britain for a better life. There are several echoes of Orwell’s 1984 here, especially the terminology e.g. some people – often refugees – are allowed to stay in Britain as The Help and those who are Defenders i.e. those who work as guards on The Wall, are given The Help as servants.

The novel’s protagonist is Kavanagh who is a young man doing his compulsory two years on The Wall. The story begins with Kavanagh’s dread of working 12 hour shifts on The Wall where it is often cold, sometimes wet and always boring. As a reader, you wonder where Lanchester is going with this tale e.g. will it be a detailed description of the post Change society? There are references to this such as the allocation of some people as Breeders but as the novel develops, it becomes more of a roller-coaster ride with refugee attacks and the consequences of this – not revealed here. It is a shortish book – the 276 pages in my copy being in fairly large print – and while it is extremely well written and continually tense and intriguing, I found myself wanting more depth to the characters and more explanations of what life was like in such as heavily controlled society. The control in the present pandemic is nothing like that of the novel but Lanchester cleverly suggests – in a very subtle way – that a country like the UK could slip into totalitarianism in a much worse situation. I would certainly recommend this book highly.

Dystopian novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Another visit to Foxlake woods to see this year’s crop of bluebells. Depending on what time of day you visit and whether the sun is shining through the trees or not, you always see something different. The photo below shows the sign for the bluebells. It’s an interesting sign in that it uses the Scots word mind, not meaning to remember but meaning to watch out for or to be careful with. In the background are some scattered bluebells and the large, solid trunk of the tree.

Advisory sign to walkers at Foxlake Woods

The maturing of the bluebell flower heads coincides with the appearance of the new green leaves on the trees, so you get double the pleasure when you walk along the path. So the scene in the photo below has gone from an uninteresting bed of green – bluebells without their bells – and bare, sometimes forlorn looking trees, to a visual delight with the purple of the bluebells and the delicate greenery in the tress, particularly the saplings on view here. Although it is early May and only 12 degrees, there is a warmth about what you are looking at and it is also a very cheering sight.

Carpet of bluebells

The next photo shows the canopy of tree branches that soar above the path as you look along the woods. On the left, you an see the still bare branches, extending like grotesquely overgrown fingernails, of some of the trees. The new greenery may block out the sun more but it is a very welcome splash of colour, giving the trees back their graceful elegance which they lost in the autumn. It is tempting, when looking at the bluebells, which you know are going to be temporary, to forget to look up to the fresh green leaves. You should always do so as this gentle green on the leaves is also temporary.

Canopy of green at Foxlake Woods

Close up, you can see how the flowers got their name and these bells below look as if they may be ringing, with some invisible ropes making them sway and peal. I like the way the sun on the flower heads changes the colour, depending on the angle of the light hitting the bluebells. Also, in the photo, you can just see that inside each bell are yellow stamen which attract the bees. There is a playful look to these bells, with their upturned ends suggesting dancing.

Hanging bells

I took this video on my Android Lenovo mobile phone so the quality is not as great as with say, an IPhone (which I am continuously told to get) but it still captures this glorious display of colour.

Bluebells at Foxlake – with commentary

William Boyd’s Love is Blind and frosty Gifford

December 30, 2019

William Boyd’s 15th novel Love is Blind (review) is the stylishly written and entertaining tale of Brodie Moncur, an expert piano tuner, who leaves his home in the Scottish borders at the end of the 19th century to work in Edinburgh. He leaves behind a tyrannical father – a foul-mouthed (in his own home) clergyman who makes money from his sermons by attracting visitors. Malky Moncur, the irascible clergyman, is both ludicrous and funny and Boyd has other characters in the book who enter Brodie’s life, and provide the reader with entertainment. Boyd is above all an excellent story teller and this tale takes in love, adventure and fascinating places – Edinburgh, Paris , St Petersburg and the Andaman Islands. Brodie falls in love with an opera singer Lika Blum, the partner of the famous pianist John Kilbarron and much of the book is about Brodie’s attempt to get away with Lika and avoid the Kilbarron brothers. William Boyd keeps us guessing at various points of the book about whether Brodie will be successful and how his pursuers manage to follow him to different parts of the world. There are some convenient happenings in Brodie’s life e.g. his unfair sacking from the Channon piano company, but the author takes the reader along with him as the story unfolds.

Boyd is particularly good at describing places at the end of the 19th century and we get glimpses of the wealthy parts of Edinburgh, Paris and St Petersburg but also the poorer and inevitably seamier side of these cities. The author takes us with him along named streets – George Street in Edinburgh, the “avenue de Alma, just of the Champs-Elysees” in Paris and Petrovsky Park in St Petersburg – and this gives the locations a real sense of place. Brodie Moncur is a memorable character and his story is highly recommended.

William Boyd’s superb novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On the very frosty day referred to in the blog recently, we went up to the historic village of Gifford (good photos) for a walk. The village’s most famous son is John Witherspoon, one of the signatories to the USA’s Declaration of Independence. On the day we visited, the frost was much heavier than in Dunbar – Gifford is 13 miles/21K inland, so away from the salty sea air. This meant that the village took on a fairy tale look, with everything – roofs, gardens, trees and grass – turned into glorious white. The photo below shows a garden at the edge of the car park next to the village hall. You can see the heavy frost but also the evergreen tree at the top which has been in the sun. The sage-like green leaves on the plants look both limp and rigid at the same time.

Frosted garden in Gifford

Just around the corner, there is a bridge overlooking the burn/river that runs through the village. This photo shows the fast flowing burn, the whitened grass and fence on one side and the white, bare branches of the tree overhanging the water, which appeared to be running as fast as it could to get away from the frozen earth.

Gifford burn rushing onwards

A little further on, you are looking into a sizeable back garden and driveway which leads up to a substantial stone house. I like the variety in this photo, with the iced over greenhouse next to the mosaic of chopped logs. To the left, on the ground is what we would call a saw horse on which timber would be cut before being chopped for logs. It is also called a sawbuck in the USA. My Scottish brother in law said he would call it a cuddy which is a Scots word for a horse. The berries on the trees to the left and right add colour to this archetypal winter scene.

Woodshed, saw horse, greenhouse and berries in Gifford

While the previous photo has several elements to it, which makes it an attractive picture, the next photo is relatively simple. This magnificent copper beech hedge is enhanced by the white frost, while still retaining its own brown colour. Twelve hours later, this hedge would have resumed its normal colour as the temperature rose in the evening. It would also look less rigid than it does in the sub-zero temperature.

Frosted copper hedge in Gifford

This photo shows the entrance to Yester House (good photos) which stands at the end of the park. The driveway and gardens used to be open to the public but since it was bought by the son of an oil tycoon, the gates have been refurbished – and firmly shut. Only paying guests are welcome now. It remains an impressive gateway to the house and the frost on the trees, roofs and pillars give it the look of something out of a Gothic horror film. What terrors lie behind the locked gates?

Gates to Yester House in Gifford

The final photo looks over the empty oblong of grass which used to be used for grazing sheep and holding a market for sheep and cattle in former days. On the left is the row of trees which line the avenue to the park. The frost highlights the normally unremarkable (in winter) bare trees, which now stand out. The village hall (good photos) is the most prominent building in Gifford and is in the main street, along with the Goblin Ha’ pub. The original Goblin Ha’ (good photos) was part of Yester Castle which was built by Hugo de Giffard – purportedly a wizard, whose army of goblins built the large hall (ha’ pr haw in Scots) for him. The castle is now a ruin.

Gifford market area and village hall

Arles’ Roman heritage and Washington Black

September 3, 2019

Our next trip after Poland was to the south of France and the historic Provence town of Arles (local pronunciation Arr-le). We flew to Marseille and the train from the airport direct to Arles takes a mere 38 minutes. As well as being very well known for its Van Gogh connection (later post), Arles was a major town during the Roman occupation, (as locals would have called it) of what was later to become Provence, in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some of the ruins in the town were built during the reign of Augustus Caesar and thus fall into the BCE i.e. they are over 2000 years old. The most impressive – and the most visited – Roman built edifice in Arles is the huge, circular amphitheatre. It was built in the late 1st century as an arena of public entertainment and crowds of up to 20,000 could watch chariot races and combating gladiators. It is still used today for bullfighting as well as plays and festivals.

It is a very impressive sight as the photo below shows. You do not get a true picture of the arena today as it is covered with scaffolded seating, but it is not difficult to imagine the crowds sitting on the stone terraces and cheering on their favourite charioteers or gladiators. While today’s football and rugby stadiums may be bigger, more comfortable and technologically advanced compared with the Roman version, this first century feat of architecture, engineering and stone masonry matches them.

Roman amphitheatre in Arles (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

When you look at the huge walls (1st photo below) and the corridors (2nd photo) behind the seated areas, you can appreciate just what an accomplishment the building of this amphitheatre was. The Romans had no mechanical stone-cutters, no no forklift trucks, no digitally controlled cranes and no cement lorries. This arena was built by labourers and stone-masons with very basic scaffolding and block-and-tackle pulleys which were manually operated. When you look up at the size of some of the stones used as lintels in the corridors, you are reminded of the superb knowledge and skills that the Romans had in creating something this spectacular. This amphitheatre could last another 1000 years. How long will our modern day stadia last?

The walls of the Arles’ amphitheatre
The corridors of the Arles’ Amphitheatre

I took this video of the arena and it includes views across the town of Arles, through which the might Rhone river elegantly flows. You can watch the video here.

Not far from the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, there is another hugely impressive feature of Roman architecture. The Roman Theatre (very good photos) held 10,000 people when it was full and was an important cultural centre in the town during the Roman occupation. It was here that the more educated class of people in Arles could watch Greek and Roman plays. The photo below shows the view from the stage and the circular seating area. Standing on the stage, you can imagine the actors in full voice – there was no artificial amplification then – acting out a tragedy or comedy.

Roman Theatre in Arles

At the back of the stage, two of the original pillars have survived and the bases of other pillars are clearly visible (photo below). The audience would therefore have seen the stage and its highly decorative backdrop, made possible of course, as this is an outdoor theatre. In the background in the photo below, you can see the many other stone remains of the Roman period and some of the sculpture on the stone is very impressive. This is a very large area and there are two more sections to the left of this photo where you can wander around the huge and small blocks of stone. The Romans built big – to show the might of the Empire and to impress the locals by the sophistication of the different elements of the stone structures, as well as the aesthetic qualities on show in the plays.

The Roman Theatre in Arles

The theatre was surrounded by thick stone walls, with a number of gates through which the audience could enter. The photo below shows one of these gates. Of course, entrance would be controlled and there would have been special entrances for the Roman governor, his administrators and his troops. You can see some of the many arches above the gates in the photo and there is a range of styles in the stone which form the arches. This is one of Arles’ must visits and the ability to walk round and feel the smooth stones which were originally moved, sculpted and put into place in 12BCE, is an enhancing experience.

One of the entrance gates in the Roman theatre in Arles

We also visited the extensive Roman baths (good photos) – the Thermes de Constantin – and you can see the areas in which people took their baths. The information board tells you that these were the baths for the ordinary people of Arles, and that men and women bathed naked here at allocated times. The wealthier locals and the Romans did not use these baths , as they had their own private baths in their extensive houses.

The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has written an intriguing novel in Washington Black (review). The book begins in a slave plantation in the West Indies and we are introduced to 11 year old Washington Black, who witnesses the horrors of the slave trade. While memories of the plantation haunt the man reflecting on this time and indeed haunt the book, the story moves on quickly as Washington Black is taken on as an assistant by Christopher (Titch) Wilde. The boy proves to be intelligent and artistic and soon gains knowledge of hot-air balloon technology, as well as the natural world.

This is an adventure story as well as a reflection on freedom – from slavery and from families – and Washington Black escapes with Wilde to the Arctic, where they find Wilde’s eccentric father. In further escapades, he is taken to Morocco and London. While some of the story means that the reader has to accept unlikely escapes e.g. from a bounty hunter, Edugyan is a brilliant storyteller and you are carried along by the story. Edugyan is also a stylistic and at times poetic writer e.g. her descriptions of the view of the plantation from a nearby hill or the Arctic ice scapes. Later in the novel, Black shows himself to be an inventor and natural scientist, the equal of his white employees. Whether he will get recognition for his work is not in his hands. The novel is a rewarding read and, despite some of the hard to believe coincidences and outcomes in the book, I recommend that you buy it.

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Gdansk church buildings

August 27, 2019

Note: The images have been sorted and now show as they should i.e. vertical

When I read a new book of poetry or a novel which has extensive reviews at the beginning, I try to avoid reading what will obviously be praiseworthy (but sometimes exaggeratedly so) comments. I have just finished reading Ilya Kaminsky’s outstanding book of poetry Deaf Republic (review). Unusually for a book of poetry, Kaminsky is telling a story – in a series of incidents – recalling a fictional town somewhere in eastern Europe which has been occupied by soldiers. The book begins with a reflection on the occupation, with the title of the first poem being We Lived Happily during the War and the narrator states that when houses were bombed, “we opposed them/ but not enough”. Kaminsky has some beautiful images throughout the book. The people of Vasenka tell the story while “on balconies,/ the wind fondles laundry lines”. A deaf boy Petya, is shot by soldiers in the snowy street and the people respond by adopting a collective deafness, which “passes through us like a police whistle”. There continues a passive – although not always – resistance as the people refuse to hear the soldiers. “The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paper clip” is a startling image, perhaps denoting how insignificant the oppressors view the boy and the other citizens of the town.

While the story is a mainly tragic one, there are scenes which show that humour can still exist in time of war. The people hang puppets outside their doors to mock the soldiers. Other scenes talk of the love one of the narrators has for his pregnant wife, as he reflects on their courtship – “we kissed a coin from your mouth to mine”. The people’s deafness to the soldiers means that they develop sign language and Kaminsky – partially deaf since the age of four – reflects on deafness at times in the book, but not in a didactic manner. This is the best book of poetry I have read for a long time and it fully deserves the glowing reviews such as that of Andrew Motion “Deaf Republic is a wonderful book, comprised of brilliantly realised vignettes in which violence, tenderness, exuberance and suffering combine to create a folk drama that feels archetypal, yet is deeply revealing of our here and now”. If you only buy one book of poetry this year, make it this one.

Kaminsky’s brilliant book of poems (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

There are many churches in Gdansk and you only have to look at the skyline to see the proliferation of spires to realise this. St Kathryn’s church is one the first to be seen on the main tourist route in the city. It dates back to the 14th century and had its ceiling repaired after a fire in 2006.

The photo below shows the outside of the church with its attractive tower and spire. The tower contains what the above website calls ” a 49 bell carillon”. This is a new word to me and carillon means ” a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard”. The bells sound every hour and as you walk around Gdansk, the sound of bells from different areas of the city are a pleasant feature.

St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

Inside the church (photo below) you can see the patterned ceiling done in an abstract manner and you start to follow the lines across the ceiling until you reach the altar. For a long established Catholic church, St Kathryn’s is relatively unadorned. The pulpit on the left has some delicate woodwork and at first, you wonder how the priest might enter this small space. You then see the two folds of the small door at the back.

Inside St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

There is a donations box – more a of a trunk than a box – and you can see from the photo below that the church has never taken chances with the money being deposited in the trunk. The huge padlocks would take some shifting. The church obviously appreciates the generosity of it parishioners and visitors, but is also aware of potential thieves.

On a much grander scale is St Mary’s Basilica (good photos) which dominates the city and can be seen from most areas. It claims to be the largest brick church in the world and it certainly has a very impressive exterior. The view below is from Mariacka Street, featured in the last blog post. It is when you walk to the end of the street and round to your right, that you see the extent of this huge edifice. I wondered how many bricklayers (and how many bricks and how much composite material i.e. mortar) worked on this church and for how long. As a student in Edinburgh, I worked on building sites as a labourer and in my third year’s summer break, I got a job as a brickie’s labourer. In the hierarchy of building sites, this is a major step up.

St Mary’s Basilica at the end of Mariacka Street in Gdansk

It also has an unusual interior, with dazzling whiteness greeting the entrant to the church. The photo below shows the white walls and patterned ceiling, which provide a suitable back drop for the suspended candelabras. As with St Kathryn’s, there is a starkness about the church, but it is beautifully adorned with flags and sculptures. It has a huge interior with 31 chapels lining the sides of the church and it would take you a long time to walk around the whole cathedral and visit all the different chapels.

Inside St Mary’s Basilica in Gdansk

One of the most striking parts of the basilica for me was the organ (photo below) as it has a beautiful symmetry, with the organ pipes clearly on show and topped with elaborate decoration, in contrast to the main part of the church. I am sure that it must make a mighty sound in order to fill this cavernous basilica. You had admire the craftsmanship of those who built this majestic instrument, as well as its predecessors. This organ dates from 1985, but the earliest organs in the church go back to the 15th century and were destroyed in the fire of 1945. We will never see the original organs but we can imagine that they too would have the grandeur of their descendant.

St Mary’s Basilica’s organ

There are many more churches to visit in Gdansk, as well as several museums, one of which is the Museum of the 2nd World War, which is housed in a very modern building, with its huge glass front (photo below). We visited the museum but there were very long and immobile queues, so booking online is probably the best bet for this potentially fascinating museum.

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and swans at Belhaven

July 25, 2019

The latest novel which I have just finished reading is Home Fire (review) by the now renowned author Kamila Shamsie (interview with author). This is a fascinating and very well written story about the clash between politics and religion and the family strains that involvement in such a clash can involve. Karamat Lone is Home Secretary in the UK and is of Pakistani origin. He is regarded as a Muslim although he is a humanist. The story involves Lone and his son Eamonn, who becomes romantically involved with another family, also of Pakistani origin. Eamonn first meets Isma in the USA and then her sister Aneeka in the UK. The main story revolves around Isma’s and Aneeka’s brother Parvaiz, who is indoctrinated in London and goes to join ISIS in Syria. No spoilers here, so I will give no more of the plot. The author does present us with an intriguing story and although moral choices may be at the heart of the novel, the plot nevertheless keeps us reading. Shamsie, like all good novelists, is an excellent storyteller and we can easily identify with the characters and the decisions they do and do not make. I highly recommend that you read this intriguing novel.

K Shamsie’s intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

With the warm weather we have been having in Scotland over the last week, we have been going for short walks in the evening after our meal. A few days ago, we went down to Belhaven beach and walking past the bridge, coming towards us was a family of swans, with two adults and eight fast maturing cygnets. The photo below (taken on my phone, so not as clear as I would wish) shows the approaching swans. The group formed a straight line at first and looked like the peloton at Le Tour. When they came to the sandbank, they broke up and one cygnet (see photo) climbed on to the sand. At this, the two parents turned round and headed back out towards the sea. There is an elegant perfection in adult swans.

A family of swans at Belhaven beach

This prompted me to think when I last featured swans on the blog and this 2015 photo shows swans on Belhaven Pond, which is not far from the beach. This shows the swans in action, gliding along the smooth pond and making ripples. The trees in the background are in full leaf and I like the tranquillity of this scene.

Swans and ducks on Belhaven pond

For a more close up view of a swan family, we need to go back to this 2010 photo which was taken on the rocky shoreline next to Dunbar Golf Course, which is on the other side of the town from Belhaven Beach and just along the road from our house. This is a contrasting setting for the swans. Gone is the smooth pond at Belhaven, but there is still great attraction in the rocks and pools and rock formations here. The adults and cygnets look very contemplative in this photo and paid no heed to this human interloper into their resting place.

Swan family on the shore east of Dunbar

One of my favourite poems is Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats and these lines show his admiration for these magnificent birds who give us all so much pleasure when we see them in the water, on the shore or in the air.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

This post appears earlier than it might as we are off to Poland this weekend for a friends’ son’s wedding. Watch this space.

Researching in the National Library of Scotland and prolific lavender in the garden

July 19, 2019

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh many years ago, access to the National Library of Scotland was denied to undergraduates until they entered their honours year – the fourth year of study. I spent much of this final year in the National Library as I could get documents relating to my dissertation which the university library did not have. I also found it a very conducive place to study as it was quiet and had an academic atmosphere. I was took one of my friends to the Reading Room and he had to leave after a short period of time as he said it was too quiet. Study habits, such as where and when to study, tend to be formed when students are in their early teens and, despite claims you will find on the internet about e.g. the study habits of successful students, individuals differ in the preferences. When I took up local history research a few years ago, after retiring, I went back to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) to get books and articles relating to my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. I still find the NLS an enthralling place to visit.

Stairs up to the Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo above (taken on my phone) shows the stairs which lead up to the main Reading Room and the NLS have taken to insert quotations from famous scholars on view here. David Hume was an eighteenth century philosopher who was born in Edinburgh and is recognised as one of the most important philosophers in the world. So there is a grand stairway leading up to where the real research is done.

Looking down from the Reading Room level at the NLS

This photo shows the view from the 2nd flight of stairs above the main stairs. The window frames at the top right are only part of this huge window ” comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library”. The ornate banisters on either side are “painted in black with gold leaf and [each] has a mahogany handrail”.  A fuller description can be found here. On the walls are framed examples of some of the illustrative work to be found in the NLS archives. Many visitors come up to this point to admire the interior but only NLS members i.e. people doing research, can enter the Reading Room.

Inside the NLS Reading Room – upstairs

Once you go through the Reading Rooms, you have to place your NLS card on a reader to go further. To get your reserved books – and this is still a predominantly book-based library – you go to a desk where the assistant will retrieve your ordered material. I reserved three books yesterday and collected them today. It is an excellent service as you can return the books and and get them back for another five days. The NLS is not a lending library. Upstairs in the Reading Room, in the photo above, you can see the domed and squared roof windows which let in natural light. This library is for serious research, so it is quiet and therefore conducive to learning. This is not to say that all libraries should be quiet. Far from it – lending and children’s sections of public libraries should encourage conversation and school libraries (one of my former areas of research) should be places where students, teachers and school librarians can discuss what is being studied. The NLS also has regular free exhibitions which are certainly worth visiting.

It is now midway through our summer in the UK and in our garden, the lavender bushes are now at their peak. Lavender plants are prolific growers, with their abundant stems reaching up to one metre above the base. In the winter, the lavender is almost invisible – a series of grey patches in the garden – but in summer, it shoots up to dominate the landscape in a furious burst of colour.

Prolific lavender in our front garden

The photo above shows how the lavenders of different kinds have spread themselves across the garden. Every time I walk into the house, I rub my fingers on a lavender head and take in the wonderful scent provided by the bush. After a shower of rain, if you open the front door, the lavender scent wafts across your face and you can inhale the welcoming odour.

Lavender, hydrangea and roses

The photo above shows how the lavender provides height at the back of our small patch of garden outside the front door. Near the front, the smaller lavender, with its much thicker heads has spread itself over the ground in the past year. The poppies still in flower on the right hand side are accidental i.e. not planted by us but spread by the wind or the birds. Lavender has featured in literature for many centuries. Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale) wrote ” Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/ The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun”. Lavender has also been seen as health giving. A 1545 herbal states ” I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head”.

A rose after the rain

Finally, one of the climbing roses, seen in close-up – my favourite form of photography. There is startling beauty in this rose – the delicate petals still holding on to the raindrops and the exquisite centre, with its pink and orange. The flowers may only last for about a week in total but the look and smell of them linger in the memory for much longer.

Malcolm Mackay novel and Peebles revisited

July 9, 2019

Having taken a few weeks to read Milkman (previous post), I read Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye in a week. This is a crime novel – which won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award – with a difference. In most crime fiction, the police are the main characters and the focus is on their thinking and their procedures and (mostly) how they solve the crime. In Mackay’s novel – the 2nd in a trilogy about the Glasgow underworld – the focus is on the criminals themselves and in particular, on Frank MacLeod who has spent his adult life as a gunman or hit man for organised crime in the city. Mackay takes us very convincingly into the mind of Frank (as he is referred to in the novel) and his boss Peter Jamieson, who runs legitimate bars and nightclubs but is also involved in drug dealing. The novel is written in short sentences and short chapters but this adds to the quality of the writing, rather than detracting from it e.g. “People [other gunmen] get surprised by something and freeze. Never happened to Frank”. There is an excellent array of characters with some deep insight into the mindset of Frank, a young gunman Calum and Jamieson. The plot moves with alacrity and the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. My attempts to second guess Mackay all failed. Frank MacLeod is obviously a bad person, who has killed many people to order, but the reader will have some sympathy with Frank’s dilemna – no spoiler here – around which the book is shaped. We should not sympathise with such a character, but we do. There are policemen in the book but they are on the sidelines. So how does a gunman say goodbye? You will have to read this highly recommended book. There is a very good interview with Malcolm Mackay here.

Excellent crime novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the weekend, we had a visit from my friend and ex-colleague Bob, on a visit from Australia, who has been to Dunbar a number of times but had never visited Peebles in the Scottish Borders. We had a walk along Peebles’ attractive High Street with its late Victorian architecture and I took Bob down a close (Scots for alley or vennel) to see the door of what is still a painter’s and decorator’s business. In the photo below, you can see that this ornate leaded window on the door shows the much wider extent of the business in former times. A gilder was “someone whose occupation was to apply an overlay of gold or gilt” according to one dictionary. The firm also installed windows – glazier and painted signs for businesses – sign writer. A bellhanger turns out to be what it says on the tin – a skilled tradesman who hung bells, presumably in churches.

Windows on a door in Peebles

We then had a 4 mile walk (good photos) along the River Tweed which runs through Peebles. It was a sunny day and there were excellent reflections of the trees across the river. In the photo below, you can see how the reflections slightly blur the image of the trees, but still give you a double view of the trunks and extensive branches of the trees that line the river bank.

The River Tweed in Peebles

Further on in the walk, we looked up to see Neidpath Castle and the website cited contains a very good aerial view of the castle at this time of year. I took the photo below in the winter time, so the trees are bare, but this gives you a clearer view of the castle itself. The castle has a long history going back to the 12th century and it is described as “rubble-built” i.e. mainly of rough stone and you can see this from the ruined section to the left of the castle.

Neidpath Castle near Peebles

The walk then passes a very impressive bridge along which the railway used to run. The photo below – again taken in the winter on another visit – shows the structure of the bridge, which has eight arches and in the column at the side of each arch, there is a cross., the significance of which I could not find. Above the arches, you can see the cast-iron railings which are another attractive feature of what is called the Neidpath Viaduct.

The old railway bridge near Peebles

The walk continues to another bridge which we crossed and made our way back to Peebles over the hill and along the side of the extensive forest.

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre

Fever by Don Meyer and two SOC artists

April 1, 2019

My first experience of the South African writer Deon Meyer was his novel Icarus (blog review here) and I was very impressed. I have just finished reading his dystopian book Fever (review). The story is set in South Africa after a deadly virus – the Fever of the title – has destroyed the world, with only a few people surviving in each country. Willem Storm and his son Nico are the main protagonists of this well written and well plotted novel. Willem Storm takes his son to set up a new town called Amanzi in rural South Africa and they are joined by a variety of fellow survivors. There are some very tense scenes as the town is attacked by motor cycle gangs whose only aim is to plunder. There is also the story of Nico’s teenage years as a member of the Amanzi “army”, led by a powerful presence in the book called Domingo. The town expands and prospers but has to be constantly vigilant. Philosophical and religious differences emerge amongst the community and Willem Storm’s presidency comes under threat. It is an intriguing and often exciting tale of survival and progress. Like other reviewers, I found the ending unconvincing but not everyone will take this view. It’s a long book – over 500 pages – and very well worth reading as Meyer is a consummate story teller, who brings his characters to life extremely well. Buy it and see what you think.

Meyer’s post-apocalyptic novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The latest exhibition at the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in Aberlady features 4 artists, two of which I feature here. The exhibition finishes on 10 April and a visit is highly recommended because of the quality of the art and the spread of styles. The first work below is by Carry Akroyd who is a painter and printmaker and the show includes some of her stunning work. The piece below is a clever depiction of terns in flight as well as wind turbines in motion. The terns are displayed in full colour but also in white (like the turbines) with a small dab of black. There is a superb feeling of movement in this work and the streamlined birds look elegant and effortless in their flight – maybe in contrast to the more laboured motion of the concrete turbines. The variety of colours is also attractive in what is predominantly a happy picture. There is another version of this print which is a postcard entitled “Big Turns and Little Terns”.

Arctic Terns by Carry Akroyd

The second artist is Babs Pease, who is an artist, illustrator and printmaker. This print is simply entitled Swans and it is a very impressive piece of art when you see it in the exhibition in full-size. What intrigued me about this piece was the artist’s decision to show the swans not in their natural white but mainly in various shades of delicate blue. I liked the way in which the swans are taking up different postures and are facing different ways, as are the reeds in the background. The rivers of colour in the birds’ plumage take your eye across the birds and down to their solid dark grey feet. You then notice the splash of orange in their beaks. The curves and patterns in the birds and the reeds give it a hint of surrealism – like swans in a dream. The poet Yeats saw his swans ” All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings”. In the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats describes the swans as “Mysterious, beautiful” and Pease’s swans meet those criteria. We often see and hear swans as they fly past the house – Yeats ” The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – or, as yesterday, float serenely on the nearby sea.

Swans by Babs Pease

There is much pleasure to be had by visiting this exhibition if you can or by watching our for these artists in the future.