Posts Tagged ‘clouds’

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).


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

William McTaggart

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