Archive for the ‘Wild life’ Category

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.

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Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

Dirleton Castle and gardens

July 21, 2017

The attractive village of Dirleton (pr Dirril – ton) lies 15 miles (25K) along the coast from Dunbar. I’ve featured the village on the blog before – here. We’ve been to Dirleton many times and I’ve cycled through village but we had never been to the magnificent castle and exquisite gardens before. The castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. After you pay at the entrance, immediately on your left is a stone gazebo (1st photo), which houses a small museum and from which you get a very good view (2nd photo) of the gardens which stretch out around an extensive lawn.

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Gazebo at Dirleton Castle (Click to enlarge)

 

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Dirleton Castle gardens

There are hundreds of different plants in the gardens and there was a brilliant range of colour in the shrubs on the day we visited. Many of the shrubs had flowers which contrasted well with the green leaves, such as this feathery specimen, whose name I didn’t know, but should have noted as there are many signs in the garden denoting the plants. Our good friend Sandra enlightened me as to the name- Astilbe.

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Flowering Astilbe at Dirleton Castle Gardens

I also took some close up photos, firstly of a thistle, and with its purple, pineapple-like, studded  head and dancing arms, it has a look-at-me appearance to attract the bees.

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Thistle in Dirleton Castle Gardens

I managed to capture a close-up of a bee on a thistle, in the photo below. This bee, with its gossamer wings and delicate colours on its hairy body, must have stopped for a second to allow me to capture it so well. I was going to crop more of the background but I like the surreal look of the flower head, as if parts of it are trying to fly off or are whirling like a dervish.

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Bee on a flower in Dirleton Castle gardens

You can walk around the gardens many times and always see something different – a newly seen peachy rose or a startlingly purple poppy, of which there are many varieties in the garden, such as the one below. I noticed this on the way back from the castle and was struck by its dark purple interior, the yellow starfish centre and the curving pale purple of the petals, parts of which were white in the sunlight. The gardens are strikingly beautiful collectively and individually and form a wonderful start to the visit.

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Purple poppy at Dirleton Castle gardens

The castle itself is only partly visible from the village green but once you turn the corner at the end of the gardens, it looms into view above you. As a show of strength and power, and architectural skill, the castle cannot but impress. What first strikes you is the thickness of the walls, designed to keep out the enemy and keep in the heat. As the photo shows, the walls were about 6ft in width and, given that some were built in the 1200s, they are still in remarkably good condition. Working on castle walls in those days was often a perilous occupation, with little thought to health and safety.

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Stone walls at Dirleton Castle

For the aristocratic families which owned the castle over the centuries, the de Vaux, the Halyburtons, the Ruthvens and the Nisbets, this was mainly a place of refuge where they could rule the lands around them and impress their guests with the huge dining hall aka the Great Hall. The 1st photo below is of one of the guide boards at the castle shows an impression of the hall with its high, ornately beamed ceiling. The 2nd  photo shows the remains of the hall as seen today. When you stand in the hall, you get an idea of just how big this space was and how many people might be entertained. Less fortunate were those who worked as servants in the castle, with the searing heats of the kitchens below and the cold, cramped accommodation in winter.

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Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

 

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The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

There is much to see in this well preserved castle and there are many informative guides in the different rooms. The final photo shows the castle from the newly formed gardens which border the castle. The trees in the foreground are well established and you can see their height by the man captured in the far right corner. The castle imposes itself on the landscape above, another show-off, just like the thistle above. For another blogging cyclist’s view and photos of the castle and gardens, see here.

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Dirleton Castle from the west

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

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Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2016 was Alice Oswald’s  new book – Falling Awake. This is an astonishing book of poems and has won some literary prizes. In the book, Oswald is not just close to nature, but inside it, and she demonstrates how elements of nature are interlinked, and how nature affects our lives , but also has a life of its own. The first poem A Short Story of Falling begins “It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again/ it is the secret of a summer shower/ to steal the light and hide it in a flower”. These dramatic images – a shower stealing the light – continue in all the poems. In Fox, the narrator hears ” a cough” in her sleep and it is ” a fox in her fox-fur/ stepping across/ the grass in her black gloves/ [which] barked at my house”. In other poems, we hear of a badger “still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted” being “hard at work/ with the living shovel of himself”. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew”, there’s an amazing image of water on a plant, as the poet imagines the dew “descend/ out of the dawn’s mind”, and affix “a liquid cufflink” on to a leaf. In Shadow, the poet describes the shadow as having ” a flesh parachute of a human opening above it” – as you see, there’s a vivid imagination at work here. There are many more images of falling in the subsequent poems. I’m only half way through the book and will return to it in the blog. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that “I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity”.

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“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

This week, we’ve had cold, but very bright days, especially in the morning. Having cycled past Seafield Pond (good photos) on Monday and seen a gathering of ducks on the grass verge, I ventured back there on foot on Tuesday – in the morning sunlight. The ducks were gone, but over the wall on Belhaven Beach, there was a scattering of seagulls, some oystercatchers and curlews, but also 2 little egrets (photos, video and bird call). As I got my camera ready, there was a sudden squawking, a brief flurry of wings by both birds, and one took off for the pond. I managed to get two photos of the constantly moving little egret. They are not the clearest of photos and maybe, I should have used a sports setting on my camera. However, they do show the elegance of this bird, with its long beak, tiny eye and large yellow feet, which help them to steady themselves on the slippery sand below the water.

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Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

In second photo, I like the shimmering reflection of the bird’s body in the water, its shadow (with flesh parachute of a bird opening above it, as Oswald might have put it) and the corrugated sand.

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Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

While the egrets and oystercatchers are nervous birds and will fly off if you get anywhere near them, the swans on Seafield Pond simply float towards you. OK – they are looking for food, but I also think that swans are narcissistic birds. They glide toward you, inviting you to photograph their haughty serenity. They move slowly, like elegant models on a catwalk, then dip their heads in the water. The first photo shows 2 swans coming towards the bank, where I’m standing at the water’s edge. There are other birds, such as coots, but these have swum away in panic and have hidden behind the tall reeds (2nd photo). See the causal elegance here, with the swans more interested in their own reflections than the presence of a would-be photographer.

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Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

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Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

The first swan pushed its head under water a few times and after several attempts, I managed to get a shot with water dripping from its beak. Look at the perfect outline of its body, the giraffe like neck and its body like a small iceberg. You can watch swans all day.

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Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond

Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.

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My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.

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Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.

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SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.

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Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory

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Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.

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Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.

 

The Fishermen and the Sandpiper

February 3, 2017

The title of this week’s blog looks as if it might be a story for children but it is two different topics. I’ve just finished reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It’s a novel which is set in Nigeria and features four brothers who decide to go fishing in the local river, despite warnings from their parents not to do so. On returning from the fishing one day, they meet Abulu who is described as “a madman” and often goes around naked and dirty and is described as smelling of “.. rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus and of bodily fluids and wastes”. It is believed that Abulu has the gift of prophecy despite being mad and he predicts that the eldest son will be killed by “a fisherman” i.e. by one of his brothers. This is a tragic story of love, hate and revenge and there is an ambiguous ending which may give some hope. Despite the tragedy, the book is enthralling to the reader, as the tale is told from an account by Ben, the youngest of the four brothers, who looks back from an adult perspective on what happened to his brothers. The long suffering, but supportive mother and the eccentric (and sometimes arrogant) father have high hopes for their children. The father works for a national bank and the family is reasonably prosperous compared to their neighbours. Nigerian politics appears in a startling incident when the boys, who have skipped school, meet with one of the presidential candidates in the town and have their photographs taken with him. Obioma is an accomplished writer, although this is his debut novel, and the story is very well constructed, with excellent dialogue. Obioma can sometimes overdo the metaphors he uses but he does produce some startling phrases throughout the book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. I found my copy in a charity shop, so look out for your copy and you will not be disappointed. You can read the first chapter here.

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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, there is an interesting article on the Western Sandpiper at Aird an Runair by Brian Rabbitts, who describes the bird as having “.. startling white underparts and rich rufous upper scapulars”. This immediately took me to the dictionary as “rufous” and “scapulars” were new words to me. The word rufous comes from the Latin rufus meaning red and is used to mean reddish-brown. Scapulars are shoulder feathers on birds, although a scapular, in a religious context,  can be “a sacramental object made of two small panels of woven wool (the required material)” or a short cloak worn by a monk. When you look at the superb photos below – generously sent to me by Brian Rabbitts – the feathers could be seen as a kind of cloak. I had a feeling that The Sandpiper was a piece of music, so I looked it up. There maybe music with that title, but what I was recalling from the dim past, was the film The Sandpiper (video) with the famous tune The Shadow of Your Smile.

In the first photo below, the bird’s scapular is shown clearly but I think that in this picture, the colours in the kelp outshine the bird.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts (Click to enlarge)

In the 2nd photo, you can see the bird’s dagger-like beak and legs that might be of steel welded on to its body, plus the scapular which reminds me of tiles on a roof.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

In the third photo (cropped by me), I like the stoical look on the bird’s face, waiting patiently for food to swim by. Also, the swirl of the incoming wavelet compliments the flow of the bird’s feathers. You almost want to stroke this bird’s back.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

 

Harbour reflections and making Minestrone

December 14, 2016

I took my camera for a walk along to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) last week. The day was so wind free that the water in the harbour hardly moved and the wee boats, which are usually swaying gently to an unheard waltz tune on the accordion, were statuesque. It’s very unusual not to have any kind of wind in Dunbar and at one point, it looked as if the sea had given up coming into the harbour, as the water appeared – very briefly – to be motionless. Then a gentle ripple spread from the entrance to the harbour across to the boats.

The two photos below are taken at the east end of the harbour and the perfect reflection in the 1st photo shows how calm the water became. There’s a hint of movement in the water in the 2nd photo and the wee boat looks isolated. This is because all the small yachts that lie in the harbour in the summer have been removed for safety. I like the way the harbour walls are reflected in the water in the 2nd photo.

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

The next 2 photos are taken at the castle end of the harbour. In the first photo, the reflections look as if they might come from an impressionist painting e.g. the squiggly lines in the castle walls’ reflection. It was a cold day but the colours in the boats and in the fish boxes on the quayside inserted a warm feature into this walker’s experience. In the both photos, the castle ruins still show the white patches left by the nesting kittiwakes, who visited in the summer. The kittiwakes have featured on this blog more than once e.g. here. In the 2nd photo, the wider angle shows the castle ruins and the narrow entrance to the harbour. Another unusual feature of this visit to the harbour was the absence of birds on the water, as you often get small groups of eider duck. On this RSPB site, you can listen to the gurgling, whoo-hooing of the eider duck, and you can usually hear this from the harbourside.

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Fishing boats near Dunbar Castle

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Reflections of the ruins of Dunbar Castle

Having made lentil and vegetable, tomato and lentil, and parsnip and pear soup recently, I thought that it must be the turn of minestrone. The term minestrone comes from the Latin minestra meaning soup with pasta (and/or other ingredients) and one as a suffix meaning large, thus giving us a soup with big vegetables. The soup is mentioned in a cookbook by Apicus (the whole book from Project Gutenberg here) published in 30CE, so it has ancient traditions. You could spend the rest of your life looking at the myriad of minestrone recipes on the web i.e. almost anything goes as long as you have vegetables and pasta in it. Almost all recipes include tomatoes. Today, my minestrone has a large leek, 3 stalks of celery, diced turnip (aka swede) and carrot, dried basil and oregano, a tin of tomatoes, 2 tbs tomatoes puree and a litre of chicken stock. I put a little oil in the bottom of my large soup pan and added the basil and oregano. I then sweated the leeks and celery, and added the turnip and carrot until it looks like this:

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Sweating the vegetables in the making of minestrone

I then added the tomatoes, tomato puree and broken spaghetti, brought it  to the boil and simmered it for c20 minutes. I always find that you should never eat minestrone soup right away – let the flavours develop for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight. You can then have a colourful, tasty and winter warming soup which served up will look something like this photo from last year. Have it for lunch with crusty bread and if you are lucky like me, go for a walk along to the harbour with your camera afterwards.

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A plate of minestrone soup with basil leaves

Huntly Castle and Mac the Mandarin

November 1, 2016

On a recent family trip, we stayed at the delightful Craigellachie Hotel which boasts the world’s best whisky bar. The Quaich (good photos) has over 900 malt whiskies and at this time of year, you can sit by an enchanting log fire with your favourite malt. I tried a Bruichladdich 1998 which was superb. My wife’s home town of Huntly (good photos) is a half hour drive away, so we went for walk around the town and down memory lane – to where my wife used to live and where she went to primary school. We were joined by our son, daughter in law and 3 grandchildren at Huntly Castle (good photos) and we bought tickets and went inside this very impressive edifice.

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Huntly Castle exterior (Click on photo to enlarge)

Inside the castle, there are many useful panels explaining the use of the various rooms. There are three floors to the castle and from the top, you can see the commanding view that the Earls of Huntly had. They could see enemies approaching from all sides of the castle, which also has outer and inner moats. The castle is build of rough stone but is no less attractive for that, with the huge round tower and some elegantly designed windows on the top floor. The autumnal trees next to the castle helped to highlight its features as shown below. The castle sits next to the River Deveron which was clear and fast flowing on our visit and reflected the autumn colours in the trees – see photo.

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Huntly Castle and autumn trees

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River Deveron near Huntly Castle

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds which I receive as part of my membership of the estimable Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, there is an article by Harry Scott entitled Mac the Mandarin. The article tells of how this mandarin drake was seen by Harry Scott in Aberdeen and on investigation, he discovered that the bird had been ringed in Norway and also found out that few mandarin have been known to travel between countries. So, an interesting tale but what brought this bird to my attention was its superb appearance. I emailed Harry and he kindly sent me two of his photos to use here.

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Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott.

The photo above is superb not just for its colours but the reflections of the bird in the water. The mandarin to me seems to be composed of a set of shapes and patterns, each with an elegant colour – pink, yellow, green, blue, brown, white and black. It’s patchwork quilt of a bird but none the less attractive for that. The distorted reflections of the mandarin and the  trees in the river give the photo a surreal element and there is a sense of serenity about this almost magical bird as it glides effortless through the water.

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Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott

The second photo has the same elements of the first and when I saw it, I thought that it would make a great subject for a Lisa Hooper print. Lisa’s birds tend to have shapes of solid colour as well as flowing lines denoting the shape of the bird and the sections of feathers. It would be interesting to see how Lisa, as a printmaker, would represent the beard like flow of brown feathers at  the side of the bird’s head. Mac the Mandarin  – the name given to the bird by Harry Scott – is certainly an autumnal visitor as some of its colours can be seen in the leaves and trees at this time of year, as well as in the stones in the Deveron River photo above.

 

Summer flowers – bees and flies

August 25, 2016

Around this time of year – late August – I get my camera out and go into my front garden for close up photos of what’s available. My first look outside the front door proved to be a good time to get up close with the bees on the hebe bush. I think that the photo below may be my best close up photo of a bee. Of course, we desperately need to keep having bee-friendly plants in our garden, as our bees are under threat and we desperately need to keep them. So be friendly – to bees! The second photo shows the hebe bush in full and it is a very colourful addition just outside our front door at this time of year.

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Close up of bee on hebe

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Hebe bush in my garden

The roses in the garden have done better this year than they have ever done. It may just be maturity of the plants although I did them more this year. If we had never seen a rose before and someone showed us a “flower” made of paper in Japanese style, the new would admire it greatly – the elegant folds in the leaves and the delicate colour. I like the quote from Alphonse Karr “Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses”   – so his glass was half-full.

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Peach roses in my garden

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Delicate pink rose in my garden

The hydrangea plants/bushes which we have in the garden are also in full bloom now. When the flowers start to form, they are small green clusters of what look like tiny peas and it’s hard to imagine that these will turn into large flowers which are perhaps 20 times the size of the original. Hydrangeas come in many forms and colours and you can, if you wish, change the colour of your plants. I managed to capture a fly on one of the hydrangeas and then a clear close up shot in the photos below. Having just watched the Olympic Games, the fly looks as if it’s on its marks and waiting for the gun to go off.

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Hydrangea flower head in my garden

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Fly on hydrangea flower in my garden