Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

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The end of Le Tour and Aamanns 1921 restaurant in Copenhagen

August 1, 2018

No blog last week as we were on our travels in Denmark and Sweden. After 3 weeks of often gruelling cycling across the whole of France, Le Tour De France ended in Paris, with the Welshman Geraint Thomas emerging as the victor. As an amateur cyclist, with a medium-range road bike, I am at first in awe of these cyclists, then perhaps slightly less in awe of them as they are a) young men and b) professional cyclists. It is on the mountain stages however, that my admiration rises, given the speed at which they cycle up the sometimes vertiginous slopes. The modern-day cyclists of course, have superb equipment in terms of bikes, helmets and racing gear. The event itself is also much bigger than it used to be. On holiday in France a few years ago, I picked up this postcard  (below) of Le Tour. Looking at the cars, my guess is that it may be from the 1960s. There are a number of interesting aspects to this photo. Firstly, none of the riders are wearing helmets and secondly, there are no crowds lining the route. What has not changed is the mountain roads ahead up which the riders have to climb, but the riders in this picture would have had heavier, less streamlined  bikes, with fewer gears. Today’s Tour participants might go faster, have more back up in the form of masseurs, physios etc but are they stronger and relatively fitter?

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Le Tour de France from the 1960s? (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Le Tour is inspiring for cyclists, so when I tackle a biggish hill tomorrow, maybe I should imagine that I am “G” (Geraint Thomas) heading towards a stage win at the top of the hill and retaining the yellow jersey. One thing that “G” and I do have in common is a yellow jersey, although his is better known than my Bicycle Wagga Wagga top below.

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Bicycle Wagga Wagga cycling top

On the early highlights of our trip to Denmark was the Aamanns  1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen. The interior of the restaurant – see photo on website – is very well designed with lighting partly provided by two wooden circles above you. The chairs are Scandinavian in design and are extremely comfortable. This is very much a Danish restaurant, specialising in smørrebrød and other dishes which have unusual combinations of ingredients and look absolutely wonderful. For dinner, we chose selections from the menu and my first selection (Shown below) was “Pan fried plaice with hand-peeled shrimps, pickled tomatoes and mayonnaise”. Now this looked an interesting dish on the menu, but it was when it was put on to the table in front of me (by one of the very helpful and informative staff) that the visual impact of the dish was felt. The topping included flower petals and the slice of hot lemon on the side added to both the flavour and the presentation. It was mouth-wateringly delicious.

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Plaice and prawn smorrebrod from Aamanns restaurant in Copenhagen

I then had the “Ravioli with Krystal Karl cheese, mushrooms, hazelnuts and summer truffles”. Each dish was carefully introduced and for this dish, one of the sous chefs came out and grated the truffle over my dish, explaining how the dish was made. A shared dish was “Braendende kaerlighed” in Danish and consisted of potato compote, gooseberries, sorrel, onion and bacon. Again the presentation was excellent (as shown below) with the extra touch of the colourful flower heads enhancing its beauty. It almost seemed a shame to eat it, but we did and the depth of flavour was superb.

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Potato compote dish from Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

At the end of the meal, we were treated to a sample of the restaurant’s homemade schnapps. The bottles line the shelves and on the counter (photo below) you can see the jars of maturing liqueurs. I often find schnapps rather harsh, but this was smooth and fruity. The charming young sous chef Laura Melodie Trillot came out to explain how they made their food and exchanged ideas amongst the staff. You can see some of Laura’s intriguing and colourful photos of the restaurant dishes here. This restaurant is not cheap but the value and quality is of the highest standard. If you are in Copenhagen/Kobenhavn – and can afford it – then definitely put this restaurant to the top of  your list.

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Maturing schnapps at Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

Seagull feast and Sydney Opera House Vivid

June 17, 2018

Another grey day last week. The jet stream was still stuck out in the Atlantic and while most of the UK was in warm sunshine, the east coast of Scotland and England suffered from a strongish NE wind which brought haar in the morning and heavy cloud all day. The wind also whipped up the tide and the gun metal water was only enlivened by the fleeting white of the waves being dragged in by the wind. When the sun is out and the sea reflects the sky’s blue, the tide seems joyous as the waves cavort towards the shore. When it is cold and a dull grey permeates the sky and the sea, the waves still come in but it looks like hard work. For the gulls, however, this was a time of plenty. In the first photo, you can see the herring gulls (adult and juvenile)  and some female eider duck in the water. The gulls are constantly nodding as they feed on a variety of worms, small molluscs and larvae. There is constant action, with the gulls flying up to avoid the incoming waves. The eider duck – the larger dark birds in the water – are unperturbed by the waves and float serenely on the water and then dive at regular intervals to feed. At the bottom of the photo, two gulls take a rest from the action on the stone wall that separates the road from the promenade.

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Gulls feeding on the incoming tide (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo, the waves cause more action amongst the gulls.

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Seagulls feast on the incoming tide

I did a short video of this scene.

In the centre pages of The Guardian this week, a photo from Guardian Witness section showed the Sydney Opera House during the Vivid Lighting Festival (Photos and video). You can see the vibrant colours that the Opera House takes on during the festival and light show on the Opera House and in the harbour at Circular Quay looks amazing.

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Sydney Opera House during the Vivid festival – submitted to Guardian Witness

I have never been in Sydney during the festival, which has been running for 9 years, but we had many good experiences at the Opera House when visiting Sydney. You can look at the Opera House from many angles when you are there, taking in the whole of the building or just parts of it. The photo below is taken at the back of the building and you would not know, from this angle, that the other “sails” existed. The glass structure is very impressive and contrasts with the opacity of the concrete roof. At the right side, you can see some of Sydney’s skyscrapers which overlook the Opera House.

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A section of Sydney Opera House taken from the rear

Opposite the Opera House is the world famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and when you first see both the Opera House and the bridge, it is hard to say which is the more impressive structure. With its striking towers and solid steel structure, the bridge imposes itself on the harbour and dominates the scene. Sitting at the Opera House when the sun is setting – with a nice glass (or two) of Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc – and looking over to the bridge is a wonderful experience.

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

In the final photo, you can see part of the bridge from the Opera House. From this angle, the bridge looks much smaller, but when you climb the steps and walk to the front of the Opera House, it looms impressively in front of you. No matter how many times you turn the corner from the botanic gardens area and see the Opera House and the bridge, it is still a thrilling sight.

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Into the Woods and Watts Gallery- Artist’s village

January 25, 2018

Firstly, as a follow up to the last post on the T S Eliot Prize readings, you can hear Ian McMillan and the ten poets reading from their work here.

While were in the V&A, we visited an exhibition entitled “Into the Woods: Trees in Photography” and it proved to be a fascinating series of photographs. The date range of the pictures on view is quite extensive, with some recent ones, such as Bae Bien-U’s Sonamu (Pine Tree) from 2014 shown below. The information on the photo tells you that “In Korea, the pine tree is an ancient, symbolic subject that was commonly depicted in traditional brush painting”. I thought that there was a calligraphic element to the tree trunks and the trees in the background have a misty, almost surreal quality. It’s a stunning portrayal of an eerie looking forest.

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Sonamu by Bae Bien-U (Click to enlarge all photos)

Further on the viewer comes toa range of 19th century photographs and the quality of some is amazing – see the website for examples. I picked out Edward Fox’s Elm in Winter, shown below. Searching for information on this photographer proved futile, apart from his inclusion in this exhibition. This scene was photographed in 1865 when photography was in its infancy, but Fox has given us a view over which our eye wanders – up the path, up and across the branches of the tree, and over the different parts of the house and garden. Fox captures the magnificence of the tree, which dwarfs the house both in size and in splendour.

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Elm in Winter by Edward Fox

My own photos of bare trees, taken in Compton (see below) are not of the same quality as those above, but I find that the shapes, the outstretched branches and the entanglements are intriguing.

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Winter trees in Compton

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Winter trees in Compton

We visited the Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village on a rather dull and cold (for the south of England) day. It is situated just outside the attractive village of Compton in Surrey and consists of a range of buildings which house galleries, exhibitions, studios and a chapel. Our first stop was the chapel (good video), designed by Mary Watts and built by her and 74 local villagers, whom she taught in pottery and ceramics classes. The inside of the chapel is round, with religious figures on the walls and  a superb Celtic panel which goes around the chapel, part of which is shown below.

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Inside the Watts Chapel

Outside the chapel, there are further intricate designs on the doorway and on the external walls – see below.

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External wall designs of the Watts Chapel

The Watts Gallery is mainly named after G F Watts, the famous artist and sculptor, whose paintings such as Hope proved inspirational. Watts was also a renowned sculptor and was known as England’s Michelangelo. At the gallery, you can see, in one of the studios, Watts’ original plaster cast of Physical Energy (photo below), which was used to make the impressive bronze statue in Kensington Gardens in London. You stare in wonder at this sculpture, which must be 15 feet high at the top, as it is huge and delicate at the same time.

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Plaster cast of G F Watts’ Physical Energy

There was much more to see on our visits, such as exhibitions by Helen Allingham (good video) and Diana Croft – no room for them here. This was a visit that lasted – with a tasty lunch – for 5 hours and it is superb value. If you are ever in this area, do not miss it.

T S Eliot Prize readings and Inside the V&A

January 18, 2018

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

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

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

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Sculpture at the entrance to the V&A.

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

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Medieval and Renaissance room at the V&A

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

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The Globe at the V&A in London

Art in Florence and autumn in Binning Wood

November 24, 2017

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

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

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

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery

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

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Marina by Salvator Rosa

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

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The path divides in Bnning Wood

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

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Trees and a leaf strewn path in Binning Wood

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

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Tall trees and shadows in Binning Wood

Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.

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La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.

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Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?

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Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.

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Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

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

 

Making soup and the Crystal Palace in Madrid

November 3, 2017

Back to normal after a very successful trip to Pisa and Florence, of which more later. There’s an old Scottish saying relating to being on holiday and returning to the usual routine – “It’s back tae auld claes and parritich” i.e. back to old clothes and porridge. It’s not cold enough yet for me to have porridge in the morning but a new pot of soup is welcome all the year round. Today, I was making courgette, and basil soup. It’s fairly straightforward with the following ingredients: 1 medium leek, 4 good sized courgettes, one large potato and dried basil. Now I know that a good many people who read this blog will call courgettes zucchinis. This source claims that there are differences between the two e.g. that courgettes are smaller than zucchinis, but I think that the only real difference is in where the terms are used – courgette in France, the UK and (so the website claims) South Africa and New Zealand; zucchini in Australia and North America. I’m not sure about New Zealand, so a comment on that would be good. To start, sweat your chopped leek in a little oil, to which you have already added the dried basil – amount according to taste. In your solid soup pan, it should look like this i.e. a thing of beauty that might be submitted for the Turner Prize as a work of contemporary art, signifying the integration of human thoughts and deeds across the newly green world. On the other hand, it’s still a thing of beauty but a photo of leeks.

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Leeks sweated in oil and basil. (Click to enlarge all photos)

I never use a processor to chop my vegetables. There is something calming about washing your leek, cutting it into 3 and then slicing it up, although this obviously has overtones of violence. Add the chopped courgette and, magically, you have another potential submission to the prize, representing …mmm you tell me. It now looks and smells very good.

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Chopped courgettes and leeks in basil and oil.

To this, you add the peeled and chopped potato and one litre of the stock of your choice – I used chicken stock cubes. Simmer for about 20 min and take off the heat. I then mashed it down with a potato masher and then liquidised it with my hand-held blender, one of the best kitchen implements in which I have ever invested.

Here is one serving of the soup, with the chopped end of a 70% wholemeal loaf from Dunbar Community Bakery.  This raises another philosophical issue – what do you call the last slice in a loaf of bread? My wife would say heel, while in my family when I was growing up, it was always called the outsider. A relative called it the Tommy – rhyming slang for Tommy Steele perhaps? What did your family call the last slice? Another Turner Prize entrant – the four islands in the speckled green sea: the post-nuclear world. Discuss.

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Courgette and basil soup with fresh bread croutons

For the final posting on Madrid, I swithered between the magnificence of Madrid’s cathedral – especially the internal colours – and the Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park, featured here recently . Having been out cycling this morning in the cool, fresh air and enjoying the autumnal spectacle of the countryside at the moment, I chose the latter. While walking through the large park, it’s easy to miss the sign to the Crystal Palace  or Palacio de Cristal, to give it its proper name. Once you see not only the palace itself but the setting, you cannot be unimpressed. The first photo shows what you see approaching the palace – a light filled building on 3 levels, with beautiful arches over the windows and ornate decoration around the bottom, a close-up of which is shown in the 2nd photo – here is a swan – like, mythical bird, with no feet and a tail of flowers.

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Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Decoration on tiles at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Once you pass the entrance to the palace, which has been closed for a long time for internal redecoration, you can walk around the large pond, with its fountain. You pass the tall, thick-trunked trees whose leaves differed in colour,  from light green to dark green to reddish-brown. You can then see across the pond to the palace. It’s a very peaceful place, made even more pleasant by the late September sunshine and 25 degrees. The final 2 photos show the palace from the side of the pond and from the opposite side of the pond to the palace. This is a slice of remote countryside which has been picked up and placed near the centre of one of Europe’s busiest cities. The Madrilenos are lucky to have it.

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The pond, the trees and the fountain at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Looking across the pond to the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.