Posts Tagged ‘clouds’

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

I have just finished reading Donal Ryan‘s excellent novel All We Shall Know. It has a dramatic opening – “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I’m thirty three. I was his teacher”. The book’s chapters follow the weeks of the pregnancy – 12 to 39 and introduce some very interesting characters. The narrator is Melody Shee – a troubled woman and at the start of  the novel, I thought this might end up being a misery lit novel as Melody is depressed and angry. This does not last however and although we do hear about Melody’s failed marriage, there are incidents from her childhood and  school days. Melody then meets Mary, a traveller girl who seeks refuge with Melody from her family. Mary is barely literate but is lively and has a sharp wit. Another key character in the novel is Melody’s father, who supports her through thick and thin. He is a charming, quiet man and a devout Catholic. He also has some Irish phrases that many will not have come across before. When Melody visits, he says “You’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring”. This reminded me of the Robert Burns song “You’re welcome Willie Stewart” which has the lines “There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May, That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!”. Here is Eddi Reader singing that song.

Ryan is an often poetic writer – “As she turned away again and I admired the sway of her, the queenly straightness of her back, the sceptred sureness of her step”. He also gives an insight into the culture of the travellers in Ireland – their extended family ties, their  disrepute (often undeserved) in the general community, and their feuds, in one of which Melody and Mary become involved. The ending is plausible but not convincing, whereas the rest of the book is well plotted and full of well-developed characters. Ryan manages to capture the Irish humour with some captivating dialogue, but he never lapses into cliches. I will be reading more of Ryan’s work in the future and I encourage you to do so as well.

Donal Ryan’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the UK, the clocks have now gone back and it is now dark by 6pm and much colder, although this does not stop us getting rugged up, as the Australians say, and going for a walk after our evening meal under a bright, starry sky. Just before the time change, we had one brilliant sunset which turned the partly cloudy sky into a stunning array of pink. This photo  shows the still blue sky scattered with pink-ribbed clouds, in contrast to the dark landscape of the town, with scaffolding on the church at the bottom left, while the sea at the bottom right is also turning pink. The sky changed as you watched it, as the light faded. What I like about this photo is that the clouds appear to be moving upwards – away from the town, as if they had been released into the sky from a canon.

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Autumnal sky above Dunbar

In this photo, you can see more of the reflection of the pinks clouds on the sea  and the dramatic swirl of the cloud above the town, which is tiny in comparison. I also like the variety of colours in the sky – the different blues, reds and pinks.

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

In the final photo of the sky only, the sky was darkening and there is quite a contrast between the left and right hand sides of the photo, as it was still quite light in the west but as your eyes went east over the sea, the light was in shorter supply, although this does not diminish the stunning patterns made by the clouds.

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar

 

 

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Woolf and Cox exhibition and the other side of St Abbs Head harbour

July 18, 2018

We were late in going to see the exhibition by Colin Woolf and John Cox at Waterston House in Aberlady, but I was so impressed by both artists’ work that I wanted to include it here. The exhibition closed last week but the work of these two fine painters will be on show elsewhere. Both wildlife artists generously responded to my requests for photos of their paintings.

Colin Woolf is an experienced artist with a wide range of paintings and he is a superb stylist. In the first painting below, which is a large and very impressive work of art when you see it in the exhibition, Woolf shows that his skills are not limited to birds. The depiction of the mountains over which the eagle is soaring is excellent and you get a real sense of height. What impressed me most was the way the artist painted the swirling clouds above the mountains. I was reminded of the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church I saw at an exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery a few years ago. The exhibition noted how difficult it was to paint clouds. The eagle may look small up in the thermals above the mountain but there is an elegance in its flight which Woolf captures.

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Eagle Sky by Colin Woolf (click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting, the birds take centre stage, although there is huge competition from the beautiful silver birch. At the bottom of the painting, the artist has included 2 pin feathers and writes that the scene is “Painted entirely with this pair of pin feathers from the same bird”. If you want to read more about this unusual technique, check out Colin Woolf’s beautifully illustrated and very educational article, as a guest blogger. In the blog post, Woolf explains the joys and the difficulties of painting with pin feathers. The birds featured here are woodcocks which have the magnificent Latin name of Scolopax Rusticola, and Woolf depicts them in motion, perhaps in a ritual display. The detail and symmetry of the birds’ wings and tail feathers is intricately painted and you can almost feel the whoosh in the air. The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of my favourite trees and Woolf shows the elegance of this tree and its magical bark. Woolf is a cosnummate painter of wildlife and these paintings were a joy to behold.

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Pin feather painting of woodcocks by Colin Woolf

John Cox is also a highly respected wildlife artist. At the exhibition, he displayed many fine bird paintings showing an array of species and settings. John Cox sent me four photos of his work and the two I have chosen show the breadth of his skills and two different environments in which the birds are displayed.

The first photo shows a pair of oystercatchers and they have the rather unattractive sounding Latin name of Haematopus Ostralegus, which sounds like serious disease or an operation you might get. I love the way the light blue colours on the birds’ undersides match those on the rocks and in the water, as if there could be a reflection on the bird from the water. The oystercatchers are very well captured, with the strong colour of their beaks matching the strength of the actual birds’ beaks. The birds look reflective in the painting, as they often do in the evening on the rocks near our house. The more you look at this painting, the more patterns, shapes and colours you see and this reflects the artist’s skill.

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Oystercatchers in rocky pools by John Cox

Oystercatchers – which do not catch or eat oysters – are one of my favourite birds and we regularly get them on the rocks near the back of our house. Through my scope, I have seen a determined oystercatcher poke away around the sides of a large limpet and finally move it off the rock. The bird then used its beak to ease the flesh of the limpet from the shell, picked up the flesh and washed it in a nearby pool before swallowing it.

In the 2nd of John Cox’s paintings below, a completely different environment is depicted. Here a short eared owl (Asio Flammeus) hovers hungrily (for itself) and menacingly (for its prey) above some bushes. I really admire the artist’s use of light in this picture e.g. how the setting sun’s rays eke through the owl’s outstretched wings and the evening sky can be seen above the trees and the town in the distance. The trees, bushes and wildflowers are delicately and expertly captured by the painter, as are the green fields behind. The urban setting to the upper left, with the church (I assume) dominating the skyline, reminded me of some of Constable’s paintings such as The Vale of Deadham shown below and downloaded with permission of the National Galleries. John Cox’s contribution to this wonderful exhibition, showing his exquisite skills, matched that of Colin Woolf. If you can get to see either (or preferably both) of these artists, do not miss the chance.

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Short eared owl in a countryside setting by John Cox

 

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Vale of Dedham by John Constable

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos), one of our favourite places and a site that makes a regular contribution to this blog, on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The harbour was busy with visitors and, looking out to sea, we could spot four  boats taking divers around the coast to special areas. For a change, we walked across to the other and quieter side of the harbour. Looking back at my many and varied photos of St Abbs Head, I noticed that there were none taken from this part of the harbour. What I discovered were some beautiful reflections in the clear blue water in the harbour. The first photo shows the lifeboat station and some small creel boats, and their shimmering reflections in the water. The solid stone walls built around the harbour to protect the boats are impressive.

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St Abbs Head Lifeboat station from the east side of the harbour

The 2nd photo is one taken from a new angle for me. Again, there is an eye-catching reflection of the wall and the boats. Above left, you can see part of the village and above right, you can see the coastal walk and the cliffs where thousands of guillemots nest. On the harbourside, the lobster creels are stacked in readiness for another trip.

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Inner harbour at St Abbs Head

The final photo looks across to the entrance to the main harbour on the left. A diving boat had just returned from a trip and the divers were unloading their gear from the boat, using the mechanical hoist you can see above the boat. Two seagulls kindly posed for a photograph in front of me. The village, the harbour and the surrounding countryside looked resplendent on the day we visited.

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A Walk down to Cove Harbour and different skies

June 26, 2018

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we drove the 8.6 miles (14K) to the tiny hamlet of Cove (good photos) where a few cottages overlook the sea in a beautiful setting – on a summer’s day. We walked down the steep path to the secluded little harbour. Cove is one of these places that you would not come across by accident, as it is off the main road. As you walk down the path, to your left, you can see the steep sandstone cliffs. This area is well-known for its geology and the upper old red sandstone was observed in this area by James Hutton, known as the founder of modern geology. Further down the path, you look out to the sea and on the shore are what look like man-made structures but are “shales and thin coals” according to one geology source. You then walk through a narrow – and on a sunny day, very dark – tunnel from which you emerge to see the small harbour at Cove – photo below.

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Cove harbour at low tide (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the harbour are a couple of small creel boats and some small leisure craft. The harbour is well protected by the sea wall and just to the left of the wall above, there is a natural wall of limestone and sandstone, with a variety of colours in it. If you look very closely at the sandstone, you can see tiny fossils – perhaps from millions of years ago. In the photo below, you can see the intricate patterns which the wind, rain, frost and sea have formed over the millenia. This was here long before the harbour was built and you wonder who was the first human to touch this stone.

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Intricately patterned sandstone

This is an intriguing and very peaceful walk on a day when the strong winds and high tides are absent. I did a video of the walk and you can see the wide range of rock formations on the cliffs, the shore and near the harbour.

 

Recently, within one week, we had a thunderstorm on one day and a calm day, followed by an impressive sunset on another day. The day of the thunderstorm produced a truly threatening sky. The photo below looks towards the horizon from our house. The sky appeared to have twisted itself into a fury from the top of the photo, down to what looked like a clenched fist, ready to punch the horizon. The large tanker parked out there, is dwarfed by this natural phenomenon and is being drenched in rain. What the photo does not show is the constantly shifting shape of the clouds, which slowly writhed and reformed as you watched it. It was so mesmerizing that I must have watched it for 5 minutes, as it very, very slowly moved eastwards along the horizon.

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Thunderstorm on the horizon

Two days later, the storm was a mere memory. The sky was clear and the sea returned to a calm blue for most of the day. I’ve taken many photos of the sunsets in Dunbar and very few of them look the same. On the evening of the photo below, the clouds appeared to be falling towards the sea, taking on a range of colours as they slowly drifted across the sky. To the left, the white clouds take on the shape of a fish skeleton and are sometimes known as mackerel skies. My memory from primary 7 at school is that our excellent teacher Miss Murray, called them haddock clouds or skies and they are a sign of good weather to come. Sure enough, the next day was sunny and cloudless.

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Clouds illuminated by the setting sun over Dunbar

Doon the herber and snowdrops at Pitcox

February 3, 2018

In local parlance, going to or down to the harbour in Dunbar is known as going “doon the herber”. I was looking out to sea last week and saw 2 fishing boats approaching the harbour, so I went along the road with my camera. I saw only one boat, which was unloading prawns. The boat itself was covered in at the sides, presumably for protection, but for a photographer, this is disappointing as you can’t get a shot inside the boat. The prawns were on the quay in boxes. As the photo below shows, these prawns are heaped together in what some might think is an unseemly fashion. They are orange on the top and pink on the underside, with tails which fan out and they have spindly legs. If you did not know what a prawn was, you might look at this and imagine them to be an invasion of maggots or an underground nest of newly merged orange caterpillars.

 

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Newly landed prawns at Dunbar harbour (Click to enlarge all photos)

As ever, when a boat comes in to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) and to harbours the world over, the seagulls are out in force, looking for an easily accessible meal. In our harbour, the majority of gulls in winter are herring gulls. In the first photo below, you can see both adult and junior gulls. The juniors are rather drab looking, with dull necks and spotted grey outer wings. In comparison, the adult gull (2nd photo)  is sparkling white and has the distinctive orange spot on its yellow beak. It also has rather spindly, arthritic looking legs and feet. Herring gulls can be nuisances in inland towns when they tear open food bags. They also occasionally steal ice cream cones from unsuspecting tourists who have come to see the sights in Dunbar. When they are at the harbour, they are more in their proper context, as in the 3rd photo, coming in to land on the fishing boat, hoping to find food trapped in the nets or trawls. These big, bold birds are opportunists at work.

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Herring gulls on the Dunbar Harbour quayside

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Adult Herring gull on Dunbar harbour Quayside

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Incoming seagulls in Dunbar Harbour

I’ve featured the early snowdrops at Pitcox Farm, which is about 4 miles (6.5k) from Dunbar, on the blog before but it is two years since I did so. On a cold winter’s day, the spread of snowdrops under the trees is a welcoming sight, when you see their white and green patches on the grass, part of which is streaked yellow by the afternoon sun in this photo.

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Snowdrops and trees in the afternoon sun at Pitcox Farm

Alice Oswald’s now famous poem Snowdrop was chosen by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 2016 to celebrate National Poetry Day and you can hear Sir Andrew Motion reading the poem here (video). The poem (words here) views snowdrops as “pale pining” girls with their heads bowed, and “with no strength at all”. Looking at the snowdrops close-up below, you might agree with Oswald and see the flowers as similar to the downtrodden women in The Handmaid’s Tale (see picture). On the other hand, these flowers emerge in the depth of winter and withstand snow, ice and frost, so maybe we should view them as the Terracotta Warriors of the winter flower world, as they stand strong together in ranks.

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Snowdrops at Pitcox

The final photo shows the snowdrops, along with the elegant birch trees beside the newly roofed cottages which are being renovated. Pink clouds in the afternoon sky can be seen through the trees – a beautiful setting.

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Snowdrops and red roofs at Pitcox Farm

PS The blog is likely to be less than weekly this year as I’m starting a new writing project, of which more later.

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Colson Whitehead is a new author to me but on the basis of this book, I’ll be trying more. The Underground Railroad has won many awards, including the famous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel begins on a slave plantation in Georgia with one particularly sadistic brother in charge. The heroine Cora knows that her mother escaped the plantation and abandoned her as a child. Cora has no intention of trying to escape but is persuaded to do so by Caesar. The horrors of slave life – constant hard work, poor conditions and regular beatings – are well described in a series of incidents. Whitehead is an excellent storyteller but, as the Guardian reviewer points out, other novels have covered this ground. What makes this novel unique – and this is no spoiler – is that the author takes the well known escape routes for slaves, known as the underground railroad and transforms it from a series of safe houses into an actual underground railroad, with tracks, stations and locomotives . So we are asked to follow the author’s leap of imagination and this is not difficult as Whitehead is such an accomplished writer. The novel then focuses on both those who seek to help Cora, liberal whites as well as former slaves, and on those who wish to capture Cora and take her back to the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway is a key character in the novel and Whitehead manages not to demonise him, despite his gruesome occupation. Ridgeway views the world in an uncomplicated manner “It is what it is” he says e.g. slavery exists and different people make money from it. The novel ends on a hopeful note although the reader does feel that there is no guarantee about Cora’s future. This is a novel which is harrowing at times, but you are driven along by Whitehead’s excellent narrative which often has you on the edge of your seat. The Underground Railroad is a passionate and imaginative novel so go out and buy it immediately. You can hear/download an interesting interview with the author here (left hand column).

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Click to enlarge all photos)

 

At the end of summer, we often get changeable weather and this is accompanied by a variety of cloud formations in the evening. Last week, looking out from the back of our house, we noticed an interesting light on the sea. Normally, it is when the moon is full and over the sea, or the setting sun casts its light. On both occasions, there is what appears to be  a silver (moon) or a golden (sun) pathway across the water, as in the photo below. In this photo however, the sun was not yet setting and this view looks north, with the sun at this point in the west.

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Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

So, first the light, then the cloud formation itself in the photo below. This appears to be a nuclear explosion or a volcanic eruption in the sky, and the many shades of blue on display was impressive. There’s a white castle in the middle and monster racing dolphins underneath. Otherwise, it’s a piece of abstract art representing the chaos in the world now, or what the end of our known world (or its beginning) might look like. That’s what I saw, what do you see?

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Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

Turning my attention west to the town of Dunbar itself, there was also an interesting formation of clouds above the town, in the photo below. Here, the clouds are in more anarchic mood, splitting up and diving off in different directions. It was one of these evening when you looked at the clouds, turned round to look north, and when you turned back the shapes had changed, as had the colours. A wonderful sight.

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Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

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The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

Osteria, making soup and natural shapes and contours

August 30, 2014

Last week, we went up the coast from Dunbar to North Berwick to have a meal at the Osteria Restaurant. We’ve been before and once again we were treated to excellent personal service and high quality food – most of it locally sourced – cooked in a way which brought out the depth of flavour of the ingredients. Osteria is an Italian restaurant but not in the normal pizza and pasta sense. In fact, many people go to Osteria without having pasta dishes at all, although these dishes are a treat e.g. from the Primi menu “SPAGHETTI ALLA CHITARRA CON GRANCHIO: Homemade guitar string spaghetti tossed with crab meat, monkfish and cherry tomatoes”. If you talk to customers who’ve been to Osteria, the main word they will use is fish. I had prawns and scampi on skewers for a starter and my wife had asparagus and pea risotto. We had a taste of each and they were delicious. For mains, I had the fish platter – delicately cooked monkfish, sea bream, scallops and scampi. The fish is cooked so that you enjoy the individual flavours of each fish/seafood. My wife had chicken but not just any chicken dish. The menu describes it exactly as “POLLO CON SPECK: Succulent chicken breast stuffed with smoked italian ham served on a bed of warmed fine beans and potatoes and drizzled with a pesto sauce”. This dish has superb depths of flavour. The service is very attentive but not in an intrusive way, and there is always a very good atmosphere in the restaurant, which was packed on the night we went. Quality is the keyword for Osteria and while it may not be a cheap option, the value for money is way above what you get in most restaurants. Osteria kindly let me copy 2 of their dishes from the restaurant website.

Prawn dish from Osteria

Prawn dish from Osteria

Fish of the day dish from Osteria

Fish of the day dish from Osteria

The summer is nearing its end here in the south east of Scotland but my garden has been productive in terms of courgettes/zucchini, runner beans and coriander. I have made courgette, leek and basil soup a few times but decide this week to use up some the coriander which is growing at a rate of knots in my herb tub. Coriander has a long history of use in many countries and the word has Greek origins. It also has medicinal applications and is recommended for people with indigestion related problems. You will mostly find recommendations to use coriander in carrot and coriander soup but we prefer to include a sweet potato with the onion, carrots, ground/dried leaf coriander and fresh coriander. It’s the simplest of soups. You sweat the onion, add  the ground coriander, then the chopped carrots and sweet potato, cook for a few minutes and add the fresh chopped coriander. You then add 2 pints (1.1 litres) of chicken or vegetable stock – I use stock pots – and cook for about 25 minutes. Let it cool, then blitz the soup to your own preferred thickness – I blitz on normal for 10 seconds and then on pulse for 10 seconds, as this makes it not too smooth. I like to add some crème fraiche when the soup is served. The photo below shows the finished product. It’s very tasty – although not at the Osteria level!

Carrot, sweet potato and coriander soup

Carrot, sweet potato and coriander soup

I looked up from my book yesterday and saw that there was crane fly (aka daddy long legs) which had attached itself to the outside of the window. When you look up close, you can see that the crane fly is a delicate creature with geometric legs, a slender body and constantly flapping wings. It was the shape that attracted me as it’s almost abstract. The legs appear to have been created by adding lines at different angles, and the body resembles an early aeroplane. The photo below shows these aspects.

Crane fly on the window

Crane fly on the window

A little while later, I looked up again from my book and the day had changed from bright sunshine to heavy clouds and rain. Above the horizon there was an unusual sky – dark and looming, but what attracted me (and my camera) was the shapes and contours in the rain clouds – see photo below. The dark and threatening sky reminded me of some of Ruth Brownlee’s paintings – see the website for many examples of her new work.

Looming sky over the Firth of Forth

Looming sky over the Firth of Forth