Posts Tagged ‘Guardian Review’

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.

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.

 

Neil Foster photography and the Anthropocene age

April 10, 2016

One of the most common clichés of today is that “It’s a small world”. This week, I was alerted to the wildlife photographer Neil Foster by my brother in law Jim who lives in Tauranga in the north island of New Zealand. I looked at Neil Foster’s website and greatly admired the quality of the photos, particularly of the birds. I was admiring the 2nd photo below of the banded rail among some vegetation and how the photographer has cleverly caught the fact that the bird’s legs mimic the shape and colour of some of the plants around it, and then I got another email. This one told me that the photo of the band rail was taken just near my sister and brother in law’s house which looks on to Bay Street Reserve in Tauranga. We have visited there many times and it’s a beautiful place. The bay is tidal, so when the tide goes out, you can walk across the sand. One of the features of the bay is that sting rays often visit and when the tide goes out, you can see where the rays have landed on the sand and created mini craters. It’s a very unusual feature of the landscape. The first photo below is looking across Bay Street Reserve back to my sister’s and BiL’s house.

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Bay Street Reserve Tauaranga NZ

Back to Neil Foster’s photos. Wildlife photographers must be among the most patient people in the world and Neil has been spotted in a hide on the reserve, trying to get the right shot. My BiL overheard a conversation between 2 locals who were speculating about the possibility that the hide might in fact be the abode of a homeless person! The photos on the website show a remarkable variety of birds from various angles and in various poses and Neil kindly sent me two of the images for my blog. The photo of the band rail below is noticeable for its clarity – you can see the alertness in the bird’s eye and how its beak might be poised to strike. The balance of colour and light is also admirable – the pink beak shown off by the whitish underside of the bird.

Foster 2

Band rail at Bay Street Reserve Taurangu

The next photo is of a dabchick (aka New Zealand Grebe) and baby bird. This is an action photo. The adult dabchick may be opening its wings to protect the young bird, or it may be cleaning itself or it may be showing the chick what s/he might be able to do in the future. Whereas the rail bird is looking for action i.e. in the form of food, the dabchick is the action. Another superbly clear photo, showing the concentration on the part of both birds.

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In last week’s Guardian Review, there was a thought-provoking and terminologically challenging article by Robert MacFarlane. In this article, MacFarlane argues that we are no living in the Anthropocene age, which is “the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record”. For the first time, the author suggests, it is human beings who define the age i.e. not as in the past where rock strata or dinosaurs were the significant feature and it is the implications of this human impact that MacFarlane wishes to examine. The author is involved in an attempt to establish a glossary for this new age and he states that the Bureau of Linguistical Reality (which sounds like something our of a science fiction novel) was founded “for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene”. He cites common words such as petroleum and ice-melt but also new words such as stieg, apex-guilt and shadowtime, only explaining the last term. MacFarlane discusses how art and literature have tackled the issues relating to the Anthropocene age but implies that it is difficult to encompass the whole age e.g. in a novel. There are many critics of the term Anthropocene and some object to the arrogance of the term i.e. it implies that humans are super-beings that can affect the universe, while others criticise the generality i.e. all of us are not leading irresponsible lives which produces climate change. Others see the term driven by technology and capitalism, suggesting that the authors of the term see only a technological fix to world problems. This is a provocative and challenging article but it will certainly make you think.

Literature on the web, and Sizergh Castle

May 20, 2014

In her article on My Hero: Emily Bronte, L Miller asks “What difference does it make to see the original manuscript of a literary text rather than just read the printed version?”. Ms Miller is referring to the availability of a range of manuscripts on the British Library website from authors including Austen, the Bronte sisters, Coleridge, Robert Burns and Charles Dickens. What excites Ms Miller most is not the original manuscripts which are in a neat form, ready to be submitted to publishers, but the rough notes and occasional diary entries which perhaps reveal more about the authors than the manuscripts, and she concluded that it makes a great difference when you can view the original.  It is certainly a site worth visiting for those interested in seeing the original manuscripts, but also for learning more about some authors e.g. the manuscript of a play by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

A short break last week for my wife and for me, to Windermere in the Lake District. We stayed in the town of Windermere itself, which is not far from Lake Windermere, at the Hideaway Hotel, which offered excellent accommodation, complimentary tea and cake in the afternoon, and a delicious breakfast menu. The service was friendly and professional, and I’d heartily recommend it. The hotel is a little hideaway, being half way down a lane, but not far from the town itself. We checked the weather before going and were promised sunshine for 3 days by the Met Office site. We arrived on Wednesday to warm sunshine but awoke on Thursday morning to a heavy drizzle, the kind of rain which does not look very threatening, but can soak you to the skin in a matter of minutes if you are coatless or umbrella-less. So, instead of scaling one of the peaks of the Lake District, we set off for Sizergh (pr Sizer) Castle. The original castle was a stockade built in 1239 by the Strickland Family who have owned the castle, with its many upgradings and extensions, since that period. The Stricklands were a Catholic family who survived the reformation years by ingratiating themselves with Protestant queens such as Elizabeth 1. The castle has extensive gardens which were very attractive, even in the drizzly rain, which only gave up the ghost in the early afternoon. Photos 1 and 2 show a medieval sword and an ornate piece of furniture.

Medieval sword and ornate decoration at Sizergh Castle

Medieval sword and ornate decoration at Sizergh Castle

Decorative furniture at Sizergh Castle

Decorative furniture at Sizergh Castle

The gardens outside the castle are extensive and contain many different kinds of shrubs and trees. In the kitchen garden, a range of vegetables, herbs and flowers – the irises were spectacular – can be seen. Photos 3-5 show examples of trees and flowers from the gardens. There is also an extensive woodland walk, which would be very enjoyable on a sunny day.

Trees, shrubs and chimneys at Sizergh Castle

Trees, shrubs and chimneys at Sizergh Castle

Iris after the rain at Sizergh Castle

Iris after the rain at Sizergh Castle

Acer at Sizergh Castle

Acer at Sizergh Castle

 

 

Birds and people, harebells and Cove harbour

August 1, 2013

A very interesting article in Saturday’s Guardian review section about our relationship with birds across the world. The author has been searching a wide range of literature for 7 years to collect writers’ views on birds and he also interviewed people in a range of countries. The article gives many examples of people liking particular species of birds or relating their experiences with birds e.g. a Canadian farmer watching chickadees surviving at -40 degrees or a newly bereaved widow’s experience with oystercatchers. My favourite section in this article was Jim Crace’s description of his liking for swifts. He writes “But still I crane my neck and track them at every opportunity, hoping I suppose to requite their deep indifference for me with my high regard for them”. Crace admires “their yachting wings, their epic, weather-driven restlessness, their teasing fickle seasonality”. Crace compares what he calls the “aloofness” of the swifts with their alpine relatives – Alpine swifts – who come closer and are much more vocal. Crace states that  ” the noise trapped in the dilapidated, medieval, traffic-free alleyways and courtyards [in the town of Grasse]  is deafening and eerie. At least a thousand screaming swifts have condescended to spend an hour close to me. This article is highly recommended – whether you like birds or not.

One of the prettiest wild flowers about in the countryside at the moment are harebells. Photos 1 and 2 below show the delicate nature of the harebells and their gentle colour. Their bonnet like leaves shelter the yellow stamens inside. They attract bees also, so they are not only pleasing to the eye but serve a useful purpose in the environment.

Yesterday, a nice walk around Cove Harbour which is a hidden gem along the coastline near Cockburnspath (pr Co’burnspath), a village about 9 miles from my home in Dunbar. To get to Cove harbour, you park and walk down the road and then turn right and go through a dark tunnel (see photo on Cove harbour link). You then emerge to a small harbour which is protected on 3 sides by cliffs, one of which is made of gleaming red sandstone. Photo 3 shows a view of the harbour from the clifftop and photo 4 shows the harbour behind tall thistles. There is also an interesting rock formation around the harbour and photo 5 shows an example of this. Back up from the harbour, we walked along the clifftop path from Cove to Pease Bay. There is a good video of Cove harbour and the clifftop walk on Youtube. It’s an easy walk with stunning views of the sea and the countryside and yesterday, we passed swaying fields of ripe barley, the heads having changed to a darker brown. At Pease Bay we walked through the ;large caravan/mobile home park and sat on a bench, eating ice lollies and watching people on the beach and in the flat calm sea. Good exercise, good company and good views.

Harebells

Harebells

Harebells

Harebells

Cove harbour

Cove harbour

Cove harbour

Cove harbour

Cove harbour rock formation

Cove harbour rock formation