Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Black’

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

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Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

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Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

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Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

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Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

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Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

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The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

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

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Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

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

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

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Death in Summer by Benjamin Black