A Pensionable Age

It was my birthday last week and I am now, officially, a pensioner.  I can’t wait to get my bus pass and try it out!

I had an absolutely wonderful birthday week and, for the first time in what might be decades, I spent my actual birthday with both my Dad and my sister who has her birthday just the day before mine.  She is staying with my Dad and so I popped up to Nottingham to see them both on the way to see Forest Green Rovers’ last, critical game of the season in Mansfield, and then on to Edinburgh.

The weather in Nottingham was kind enough to enable some pleasant local walks but the highlight of my stay – apart perhaps from our joint birthday meal out at a local restaurant – was an evening playing Mahjong

The Family Mahjong Set

My Dad (and now my sister) has inherited a fine and thankfully complete bone and hand painted Mahjong set which my Grandad brought from India when he returned to England.  The game is a delicate balance of luck and skill but the pleasure really comes from the handling of the bone bricks and counters.  Playing again as a family was such fun although we all missed the fourth hand in the game – Mum.

Three-Player Mahjong; My Winning Hand (Hehe!)

Of course the next highlight was Forest Green Rovers’ game at Mansfield.  We needed to achieve a better result on the day than Exeter City (who were playing at home in Exeter) to win the English Football League Division 2 Championship.  We came from behind twice against Mansfield with two fine goals right in front of us to gain a draw.  Then, a minute after our result, we heard that Exeter had lost; we are Champions!  Joy was unconfined on and off the pitch!

Champions!

I had to leave those celebrations early and quickly to get my train north to Edinburgh.  I arrived just before midnight in the midst of First Grandchild’s (FG’s) sleep training.  I was quiet and careful not to disrupt the discipline of feeding him at fixed times and of forcing him to settle himself when waking during the night.  FG’s progress during my few days in Edinburgh was transformational but not entirely linear – nor will it be continuous going forward.  But the direction of travel is extremely positive and, for Eldest Son and, especially, his partner, the huge reduction in FG’s demands during evenings and the night is already life changing for them (and FG).

Big Beach And Big Sky: Portobello, Edinburgh

Seeing FG again was a real treat and I had such a great time in Edinburgh again.  I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens once more (with a sleeping FG).  I am now familiar with the gardens but, of course, it is now Spring so everything looks different – and even more interesting – than it did during my last visit.  The last of the tulips are out and the rhododendrons are looking gorgeous.  The trees are freshly in leaf and the birds are super-active.  Fortunately, FG slumbered throughout.

Royal Botanical Gardens: Tulips In The Demonstration Garden

It is at this time of the year that one can see that, indeed, the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh has the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.  There is such a variety on show and now is peak flowering time.  A small but interesting exhibition in Inverleith House set out the characteristics of rhododendrons, their world distribution, their history in gardening, and the challenges to indigenous plant-life some varieties have caused as they have escaped into the wilds of the northern hemisphere, including Scotland. 

Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens: Fresh Leafed Trees And Flowering Rhododendrons

I also went to a superb exhibition of Barbara Hepworth’s work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  It was a straightforward retrospective but, I thought, the pieces on show were not only excellent illustrations of the progression her art took through her life but were, in several cases, just astonishingly good.  I loved the exhibition.

Barbara Hepworth At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art

In part, as I have noted during previous visits to Edinburgh galleries, my pleasure was heightened by the fact that there were no crowds vying for views of the work on show.  Exhibitions in London may be more high profile but they can also attract crowds that can detract from the show.  Being another capital and highly cultural city, Edinburgh can attract big names and marvellous works but without the huge audiences – at least, outside of Edinburgh Festival timings. 

Barbara Hepworth Bronzes And More
More Hepworth At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art

My final cultural exploit in Edinburgh was to see the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The big ‘wow!’ here is the Great Hall of the building itself.  As one walks into the building for the first time, it is a jaw-droppingly beautiful space.

The Great Hall At The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The art on show is, predictably, almost exclusively portraiture.  I can only take so much of that and I may have overdone it as the chronologically organised galleries became a bit of a blur after a while. 

The Library At The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

There was however, a mixed but, overall, interesting exhibition on the Scottish census.  This included a piece of a project by Kieron Dodds to photograph ginger-haired people.  These tend to be in distinct geographic pockets around the world – apparently, for example, 13% of people in Scotland are have ginger coloured hair and there are distinct preponderances of ginger colouring in parts of the Caribbean and Russia.  The project felt relevant given that FG’s current hair colour is also a little ginger.

‘Gingers’ By Kieron Dodds

Then it was back to London to carry out a chore or two in the Barbican flat prior to sale (we hope).  I saw The Northman in a cinema – my first cinema visit for a long while.  It was worth seeing on the big screen if only for the amazing Icelandic scenery but, apart from one twist exquisitely delivered by Nicole Kidman, it was, for me, no more than a bit of moderately entertaining, macho-violent, Nordic swashbuckling. 

I capped off birthday week with breakfast with Middle Son – always a treat to get an update on his shifting plans.  Then home to get my bus pass application in……

Big Month and Bacon

April 2022 was a truly memorable month.  Eldest Son (ES) and his partner (plus First Grandchild) bought a flat – the first of our sons to become a home owner.  Also (and I’m afraid ES, at least as significantly) Forest Green Rovers were promoted to English Football League Division 1 (EFL1)! 

Joy Unconfined

I have supported Forest Green Rovers Football Club since the family moved to Gloucestershire almost 25 years ago.  I was finding it increasingly fraught and onerous to take our boys the 70 miles there and back to my boyhood club of Reading.  I wanted them to like football and have the opportunity to watch it live and so I turned to the ‘biggest’ local Club: Forest Green Rovers.

When my support started, the Club had just been promoted to the National Conference League (the fifth tier in England) and offered a poorly attended, but viscerally intimate, version of semi-professional and then fully professional football.  I watched the football while the boys messed about one the terraces with each other and with Lego.  

The Club were perennial underdogs at that time.  However, the Club was transformed progressively following investment from green energy industrialist Dale Vince in 2010.  Dale uses the Club to promote his green and vegan values – we are reportedly the ‘greenest’ football club in the world – but has also applied finance, ambition and vision to the Club.  Promotion to EFL2 followed via the playoffs and a truly remarkable day at Wembley.  Now, just 5 years later, we are promoted again to EFL1.  Next year will be very difficult but it has been a wonderful journey for me and all the other fans of the Club. 

After A Win Versus Oldham Athletic Which Virtually Guaranteed Promotion

Unfortunately we are likely to just miss out on finishing top of EFL2 following a relatively poor run of recent results.  But one chance remains if we can win our last game at Mansfield next weekend.   In a slightly crazy itinerary, I am going to that game via my Dad in Nottingham and then onwards to Edinburgh to see ES’s new flat.  The start of another memorable month perhaps…..

April was not solely dominated by football.  I also attended an alumni event in London with people who were exact or approximate contemporaries during my first 2-3 years of work way back in the 1970s.  It was a great to catch up and also an opportunity to tidy our Barbican flat ready for sale and to see a London exhibition.

I chose to visit the Francis Bacon, Man and Beast Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  It’s hard to say I ‘like’ Bacon’s art since it is so menacing and challenging but I do enjoy seeing it and admire it hugely.  I had last seen an exhibition of his work almost three years ago at the Gagosian Gallery in London.  That had highlighted Bacon’s interest in animals and the new exhibition at The Royal Academy followed that wildlife and animal theme.

In practice, some of the work on show was only loosely linked to his fascination with wildlife and the parallels between wild animals and humans (much of which seems to have stemmed from his early life as a horse-breeders son).  There were a number of works that one almost expects to see at a Bacon exhibition and the links between these to apes, bulls, birds (but never horses) sometimes seemed tenuous.

Royal Academy Exhibition: Typical Images By Francis Bacon (Head VI, Figure Study II) And, More Unusual ‘Landscape Near Malabata’ (Bottom Right)

Nonetheless, it was an excellent exhibition that told a fascinating life story and that was well worth seeing.  I found the triptych’s at the end of the exhibition particularly daunting but impressive. 

Royal Academy Exhibition of Francis Bacon Triptychs

I was lucky too that I was able to attend as the exhibition opened when it wasn’t too crowded.  That enabled time and space to take in all the skewed wildness and menace in some of Bacon’s best work.

‘Two Studies From The Human Body’ By Francis Bacon – Probably My Favourite Painting In This Royal Academy Exhibition

Back home, we had a very family oriented Easter with Youngest Son, his partner and pretty much all of Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) close relatives.  The weather was kind enough to enable us to spill outside for a lot of welcome catch-ups with LSW’s nieces and nephews.  We hadn’t seen YS since Christmas so it was just great to see him and his partner over the long weekend too.  We must plan another trip to Belfast……

One Of The Signs That Spring Is Here: The Annual ‘Amberley Cow Hunt’ – ‘Mootallica’ and ‘Calf Awake’. Two Of Over 30 Displays

Spring hasn’t fully warmed up yet but gardening has started in earnest – I can tell from the muscle aches and the good nights’ sleep.  Preparing the ground for vegetables at this time of year by digging it over and clearing weeds is one of my favourite tasks; there is no pressure yet to protect stuff from deer, voles, mice and badgers or to actually produce any vegetables yet.  It’s just good old physical work and I don’t have so many vegetable beds that I need to overdo any exertions.

‘Everest’ Crab Apple and Camassia In Our Garden
Local Bluebell Woods

It’s is lovely and lucky to be doing that gardening in such a pretty and relatively untroubled part of the World.

The Cotswold Countryside Appears To Be Supporting Ukraine

Spring Visits

Ok, so yesterday afternoon we had a brief blizzard of snowflakes, but Spring is well and truly here!  Trees are starting to reveal their leaves and the blackthorn has been in flower for weeks.  Cherries and magnolias are in full bloom.  Lambs have arrived in the fields adjacent to and opposite our house.  Their carefree gambolling about on wobbly legs is always a huge pleasure to watch at this time of year.

Worryingly, but not unexpectedly given the fact of global warming, Spring seems earlier every year.  Even by mid-March I was starting to see a range of butterflies (including Brimstone, Clouded Yellow, Small Tortoiseshell, Orange Tip and Red Admiral).  But, whenever Spring feels like it has arrived, it is always a joy.

Once again, during a trip to Edinburgh, the weather was very kind.  One time in the future when we visit Edinburgh, all our sunny days there so far are going to be repaid by relentless rain and grey but…  not yet!

On Carlton Hill, Edinburgh With FG (Asleep And Out Of Shot)

On this trip there was the novelty and pleasure of picking up my Dad on the way and taking him up to Edinburgh with us.  That enabled him to see Edinburgh again for the first time in a decade or so but also, critically, to meet his great grandchild (our First Grandchild (FG)).  It was actually too, the first time he had me FG’s mother since previous attempts to meet up had been thwarted by train cancellations or pandemic restrictions.  The building of new relationships even extended to my Dad meeting FG’s other grandparents over a lovely lunch at their flat.

Of course, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I did our pram-pushing duties to send FG off to sleep while taking in the sights and smells of Edinburgh.  (There is a brewery in the city and the smell of hops reminded me of the breweries in my home town of Reading when I was a kid.)  Once again we visited the excellent Royal Botanic Garden which was perfect in the sun. 

Inside The Alpine Houses At The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
The Obligatory (But Lovely) Slew Of Daffodils In The Royal Botanical Gardens

In the Botanic Garden entrance hall was a colourful and interesting exhibition (called ‘Forth Lines’) of local artists’ embroidery with each of 96 panels depicting a point along the Firth of Forth coastline.  FG stayed asleep long enough for me to enjoy it and to encourage my thinking about future walks along that coastline.

Sample Rows Of Embroidery Pieces By Local Artists And Residents Along The Firth Of Forth (The ‘Forth Lines’ Exhibition)
One Of The Individual Panels From The ‘Forth Lines’ Exhibition (By Kathleen Wilson)

Another exhibition I visited while in Edinburgh was a major exhibition of John James Audubon’s pictures of birds at the National Museum of Scotland.  My Dad has long been interested in Audubon and I tagged along since I love exhibitions of this sort and it was great to share the experience with my Dad.  It is an excellent exhibition. Our only wish was that there would be more on the process of actually executing the drawings, engravings and colouration – it was clearly a substantial team effort. Regardless of this, the resultant prints on show are stunning and the explanations of them and of Audubon’s life were fascinating.

Audubon was certainly a rather strange character.  He was born in 1785 in Haiti to French parents – a plantation owner and his maid – and became a self-trained naturalist, artist and hunter. 

Audubon had many contradictions.  He owned slaves and dabbled in ideas related to eugenics but took funding from slavery abolitionists. He shot thousands of birds in his life but was also one of the first to document how industrialisation and agriculture were destroying bird habitats.  His lack of an academic background meant many in the scientific community in America denigrated him but he was – with his drawing talent, determination to succeed and his wild looks (complete with bear oil slicked hair) – a big hit in the academic and artistic circles of Edinburgh.

Detail From Plate 26 Of ‘Birds Of America’ – ‘Carolina Parrot’ by Audubon

It was here and then London that he gained sponsorship for (apparently £2m in today’s money) and published his most famous and hugely popular work, ‘The Birds of America’.  The huge volumes consist of 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates of various sizes depending on the size of the image.  One of the volumes was on show at the exhibition alongside numerous individual prints.  The book was extravagantly large because, remarkably, each bird picture it contained was drawn at life size.

One Of The Volumes Of Audubon’s ‘Birds Of America’

The prints on show were vibrant and wonderful and the lack of crowds at the exhibition meant that the stunning detail could be seen up close and at leisure.  That many of Audubon’s prints boasted incorrectly of newly discovered species or were anatomically incorrect didn’t matter given the high quality of the overall impact. 

Detail From Plate 72 Of ‘Birds Of America’ – ‘Swallow Tailed Hawk’ by Audubon

The exhibition was also good because it told Audubon’s story about his talent (and the way the world responded to it) interestingly, and it was honest about his flaws.  Most of all, it was great to have the afternoon with my Dad sharing something so memorable.

Although We Didn’t Explore It Beyond the Audubon Exhibition This Time, The National Museum of Scotland Is In a Lovely Building

To round off March, LSW and I visited The Newt Garden in Somerset for the second time this year.  Spring has definitely come to this 350 acre garden and woodland.  Already, the myriad varieties of cordon and espaliered apple plants are starting to come into flower. 

The Newt Gardens – The Parabola Garden

As reported in this blog several times before, it is a wonderful garden which continues to evolve and grow.  This time we were able to visit with two friends from our village which added a lovely extra dimension which was topped off by a delicious lunch in the Garden restaurant.  I’m looking forward already to visiting again later in the year.

The Gardeners Cottage And Magnolia From The Victorian Garden At The Newt

Before that, we have April to look forward to: a re-warming of the weather, the Football League run-in of the final games of the season (I go in hope for Forest Green Rovers), more blossoming of plants and shrubs, thriving seedlings (again, I hope), and Easter with Youngest Son and his partner.  Not a bad prospect but what a shame it is the global context of Russia’s dire attack on Ukraine.  Spring is sprung but not everyone can appreciate it right now.

Bonus Photos of Sunny Edinburgh

Three London Exhibitions

A couple of weeks ago, during visits to London to meet up with friends I hadn’t seen for the couple of years of the pandemic, I slotted three art exhibitions into my schedule.  Exhibitions in the great cultural centres of London are almost invariably well thought-out, well presented and well worth seeing.  These three were no exception even though I didn’t enjoy them quite as much as some of the truly outstanding exhibitions I have seen in London over the last few years.

For the first exhibition, I followed in Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) footsteps by attending an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’ recent work at the Hayward Gallery; LSW recommended it having visited with an old friend a couple of weeks earlier. 

Variety of Typical Work By Louise Bourgeois (Note The Cow Bone Coathangers!) At Tate Modern

The exhibition, called Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child focuses on her use of textiles.  She often sewed fabric to create sculptures set in mobiles or in large vitrines or cages.  I found those on the first floor of the exhibition rather oppressive but, upstairs, the colours were brighter and I warmed to the themes of her work. 

Various Works By Louise Bourgeois
Various Works By Louise Bourgeois

I particularly liked the sets of print and fabric compositions based around spiders’ webs and the concept of spiders as a weaver and repairer of its woven lairs that dominated the second half of the exhibition. The large sculpture of a mother spider, surrounded by a cage and a host of artefacts hinting at threat, protective motherhood and Louise’s own childhood memories, seemed to reflect and oversee a number of other nearby works.  I ended up really enjoying the exhibition and the way it was laid out.

Spider by Louise Bourgeois (1997) At Tate Modern

I then went to the latest exhibition at The Barbican: Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965.  Again, it took me a while to ‘get into’ the content of the exhibition.  As usual, it was very well curated and presented with, I found, just the right amount of information in a great space for art.  Many different themes were portrayed with each allocated a room or distinct area of the exhibition. 

Bronze Figures By Eduardo Paolozzi (1957/8)

Perhaps I didn’t quite get the overall point about a ‘rough poetry’ that underpinned and, apparently, linked the work on display.  But I certainly could see some overarching points about dislocation, rebuilding and hope for the future.   The location, in the heart of the Barbican, which is itself a remarkable monument to post war brutalist rebuilding, created a perfect context for the Postwar Modern scope.

The Barbican – Such A Wonderful Space For An Art Exhibition

There were several artists represented that I am familiar with but there were several others that were entirely new to me.  Inevitably I enjoyed some rooms/areas – each given poignant names like ‘Horizon’, ‘Concrete’, ‘Scars’ and ‘Strange Universe’ – much more than others but, overall, it was absorbing and impressive.  Given that I saw it on its second day and it is on until late June, I may visit again.

I loved This – A Bowl By Lucy Rie and Hans Coper (1955)

Finally, LSW and I visited the ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ exhibition at the Tate Modern.  I went in not knowing much about the exhibition and perhaps it was a mistake not to have read more about it beforehand and not to give it more time than we had. 

No Surrealist Art Exhibition Complete Without A Lobster Phone By Salvador Dali!

It is a very broad exhibition (hence the ‘Beyond Borders’ title).  Although the rooms tried to compartmentalise this breadth around geographies (Cairo, Mexico, The Caribbean for example) or themes (portrayals of dreams, desire and the ‘uncanny’ for example), I struggled to build in my head either a time line or logic to the exhibition as a whole.

‘Deification Of A Soldier’ By Yamashita Kikuji (1967) – Seemed Apt For Our Current Times

In addition, and unlike the Louise Bourgeois and Postwar Modern exhibitions, there just weren’t many works that I really liked.  Too many were unsettling (as I’m sure they are meant to be) to the point of ugliness; I just don’t think I appreciate surrealist art as much as other styles.  However, it’s always good to have the opportunity to visit such exhibitions even if it merely confirms ones predilections.

The Painting I Enjoyed Most In The Surrealism Exhibition, By Alice Rahon (1955)

I shall miss the relatively high frequency of my tours of London art and museum exhibitions once we lose our base there (the flat I used on weekdays before I retired), but I’m sure I will find new excuses to get up to London in the future and will squeeze a few more exhibition visits in.

Old Mates, New Gig

In the last two weeks I have revived two lines of enjoyment that have been very constrained since the start of the pandemic two years ago: going to a gig and meeting up with groups of old friends on London. 

London – Always A Treat To Visit This Great City

It was on the 13 March 2020 that Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to Bath to see a concert by Faeland.  It was a similar length of time ago when I last met up with a bunch of old, London-based friends as part of an ongoing set of get-togethers to visit restaurants representing each, in turn, a letter of the alphabet.  We had been stuck on ‘S’ (for Spain as it turned out) for around two years.

It’s always good to visit London and always great to catch up with old friends there.  Not only did I get to meet with my alphabetically-sequenced restaurant group of mates (at Donostia) but I also separately caught up with a few other long-standing ex-workmates and friends over lunch at Ombra.  Both restaurants were small-dish-based (Basque and Italian respectively).  Neither was inexpensive but the food was tasty, the wine flowed and the company was very welcome after such a long break from group conviviality.

Views From Our Barbican Flat – Now For Sale (Sadly)

LSW and I also caught up with some old friends before going on to a concert by Hope Tala at Village Underground.  This is a great, medium-sized venue that I have been to many times before, but not since retirement getting on for 5 years ago.  We met up beforehand at the bar at Tavla with a couple of female friends from our time living in Kew.   At this moment in the Covid pandemic recovery, it’s a very relaxed and convenient bar for these purposes – buzzy but not too crowded with good value drinks and friendly service – and it has become our go-to bar in East London.

Getting Busier Again – Whitecross Street Lunch Market Next To Our Flat

Hope Tala is a good friend of the daughter of one of these Kew friends – hence the choice of concert.  The daughter is now doing many of Hope’s music videos.  This is a line of work that has become more interesting to me since Youngest Son (YS) dabbled in music video as part his mainstream video business (at Wilson Archer Films).  Hope played an energetic and vibrant gig that was full of poppy riffs with a Latin tinge.  I’ve surprised myself with the extent the songs have stayed in my head for the days since.  Based on what I heard, Hope Tala will go far and I hope that creates a platform for more video creation for our friend’s daughter.

Hope Tala And Band At Village Underground

While in London, I fitted in a three exhibitions but I’ll take a breath and post separately on those.  Following the recent meetings of groups of London-based friends, a gig (at last!), and a few exhibition visits, life seems to be returning to normal.  Next week we are off to Edinburgh to see First Grandchild (FG) again.  This time we are planning to take my Dad up in our new electric car so he can meet his great grandchild for the first time.  We saw FG just a couple of weeks ago when he and his parents flew down to see us for FG’s first trip out of Edinburgh.  Now I can’t wait to see his further development since (which seems to include the discovery of his ability to squeal loudly!)

In the midst of the dreadfulness of what is going on in Ukraine it seems incongruous to be having a good time and moving back fully to what I would probably call normality.  All we can do is hope that some semblance of normality returns quickly in Eastern Europe too.  It seems that maybe only one man can make that happen!

Late Winter Skies On A Local Walk Home

London 2 Edinburgh 1; But Edinburgh Wins

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have travelled twice to London and once to Edinburgh in the last couple of weeks.  Our trips to London related to our preparations to sell our flat in the Barbican.  It is no longer required now that I have retired and our sons no longer have any great need for it.  I shall be sad to see it go – it was my base 5 days a week for pretty much 20 years of London working – but go it must.

We got those preparations for sale done very satisfactorily and the flat is on the market.  However, we also found time to visit a few exhibitions and bar and restaurant venues; London is always a great place to visit and the flat was, as ever, a very comfortable place to stay. 

Our Barbican Flat, Ready For Sale

Our trip to Edinburgh was sandwiched between those London trips.  Edinburgh is, of course, a much smaller city than London but it is a national capital and has many of the same sorts of sights and attractions.  Above all, it now is home to our First Grandchild (FG) and we currently need no greater attraction.  As any parent or grandparent will know, it is amazing how fast babies develop and start to take on a character of their own.  We are lucky to be able to see this with FG and it was such an enjoyable trip!

Once again we stayed in the Premier Inn Hub in Rose Street.  It is inexpensive, very comfortable, small but perfectly formed.  It is close to where Eldest Son (ES) and his partner live.  It is central and close to all the main city sights.  The Premier Inn Hub chain has become our go-to hotel and, once the London flat is sold, I can envisage us using it in London too.

Once again too, we visited the Joan Eardley exhibition (now finished) at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  I enjoyed it hugely during our first visit.  This time we had FG duties (very willingly undertaken) so the visit was briefer but, not having heard of Eardley before last Autumn, she now has a firm place in my compendium of favourite artists.  FG wasn’t fussed by the art but seemed to like the ceiling lights.

‘Boats On The Shore’ By Joan Eardley (1963)

We also visited an exhibition (also now finished) in the Scottish National Gallery of JMW Turner watercolours.  These had been collected by Henry Vaughan , a great admirer of Turner, and then bequeathed by him to the Gallery in 1900.  As he did so, he specified that, to preserve their colour, they only be shown in the typically dull days of January.  This exhibition was a rare occasion when all 38 had been brought together in a single show. 

Turner is definitely one of my long standing artists and the exhibition demonstrated many of his best traits – the atmospheric glows of storms and skies, the complex colouring and the huge vistas.  There were also some more delicate portrayals such as an empty chair indicating the recent death of a friend.  No one painting felt great but the ‘whole’ created by the 38 pictures was interesting.

JMW Turner Watercolours From The Henry Vaughan Bequest At The Scottish National Gallery

Another highlight from this Edinburgh trip was our first walk all the way to Leith. 

Andrew Gormley Sculpture On The Walk To Leith

Leith has a rather different feel from the other parts of Edinburgh we have come to know.  Whereas large parts of the New Town area where ES lives are unchanged in a hundred years, Leith is developing quickly and has a slightly different, almost East London, buzz about it. 

Leith (Old Customs House To The Left)

In New Town, LSW and I spent an afternoon perusing the high quality art galleries in ES’s street (Dundas Street) and then had a relaxed drink or two in a relatively new bar called Spry.  Incredibly, despite it only apparently having about a dozen seats, we got a table by the window and liked the ambience very much.

Exotic And Rather Lovely Baskets By Gudrun Pagter and Baba Tea Company (Ghana) At The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

As on previous trips, we ate well.  ES’s partner produced another lovely meal, we had a surprisingly relaxed evening at Pizza Express with a sleepy FG, and a substantial Indian takeaway.  It was great to meet up with ES’s partner’s parents again (especially as the football team I support happen to have beaten one of the teams her Dad supports in the afternoon 🙂 ).  And it was especially great to see FG smiling, growing and, between rather sleep-deprived nights, giving his new Mum and Dad some real joy.

Back in London, I visited the National Maritime Museum to see the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition.  I’ve seen this exhibition in previous years and, while I don’t understand the techniques used in taking the photographs, I love seeing the results.  It’s a little-known pleasure.

Astronomy Photographers Of The Year At The National Maritime Museum

LSW and I also had another pleasant (and, incredibly, free) dose of Isamu Noguchi; this time an exhibition of his relatively recent work in the large spaces of the White Cube Gallery.  It was, of course, a much smaller exhibition than that we had seen last month at the Barbican, but it reflected many of the same themes which I found reinforcing and strangely comforting. 

Works By Isamu Noguchi At The White Cube Gallery

On the way, we discovered a good new breakfast venue: Watch House at Tower Bridge.  Ozone, which is our normal breakfast haunt is also very good and both are open early.  Edinburgh has some excellent breakfast places but few open early enough for us.  It’s a small area for potential improvement in the comparison between London and Edinburgh.  However, First Grandchild puts a gloss on Edinburgh that makes it the go to city for me at the moment!

LSW and FGs’ Hands

New Year Resolution Trips

Since retiring over 4 years ago, I have been pretty diligent at making and tracking progress against annual New Year resolutions.  Progress this year was patchy.  I met my alcohol-free days and alcohol unit reduction targets.  I also exceeded my target of an average of 15,000 steps a day, and my weight has just about stayed within the target range.  However, intentions to step up organisation of the vegetable garden and composting facilities have remained unfulfilled and I read a woefully small number of books this year. 

This time last year, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I made a new, joint resolution to travel around the UK more.  Covid has, of course, restricted overseas trips and our sons are now living all around the UK – in Belfast, London and Edinburgh.  So perhaps inevitably, we have done more travelling around the UK than in the past, culminating in our Christmas on Skye, Scotland

Memories of Skye at Christmas

Our joint New Year resolution this year is to step up and renew our familiarity with the UK even more.  We have already started with a few trips this January and are lucky enough to have the prospect of many more this year.

I Never Tire Of London And Views Of The Thames; This One At Dusk

We had to travel up to London briefly to prepare the Barbican flat for sale.  There is another such trip later this week.  London is always a pleasure for me; there is so much going on to see and do (even in a pandemic).  This time, as well as seeing Middle Son and his partner for dinner at one of our long-time favourite restaurants (Moro), we went to exhibitions in the Barbican and in Tate Modern.  Plus, I managed a couple of hours in the Imperial War Museum.

Lubaina Himid Exhibition At Tate Modern

Lubaina Himid’s exhibition at Tate Modern was substantial and well done.  The vibrant colours and range of work were impressive but I can’t say I was entirely convinced or entranced by the pieces on show.  The pictures sometimes captured movement but didn’t generate dynamism for me and the sonic works, while interesting and atmospheric, weren’t arresting.  However, we both liked the bright colours and thought it was an exhibition worth seeing – especially as LSW is a member so tickets were available and felt free.

‘Old Boat/New Money’ (Accompanied By Sounds of Sea And Ships) By Lubaina Himid At Tate Modern

We both thought that the Isamu Noguchi exhibition at the Barbican was much more interesting.  The Guardian newspaper review of the exhibition rather poo-pooed the exhibition as being more like a luxury lighting show room.  Certainly there were a lot of lovely lighting exhibits on show but there was so much more.  I enjoyed a lot of the sculptures, some of the ceramics and, especially, the way the exhibition juxtaposed these with the light-based works. 

Views Of The Noguchi Exhibition At The Barbican

As usual, too, the Barbican had put together a clear explanation of the progression of Noguchi’s ideas as they developed through his life.  I thought it was an excellent exhibition.

More Views Of The Noguchi Exhibition At The Barbican

A friend in our village recently recommended a visit to the London Imperial War Museum.  So, when I found myself nearby, while LSW was shopping near Borough Market, I took myself off there to investigate the recently commissioned Holocaust Galleries.  These build up a picture of the Second World War Holocaust through hundreds of photos and the telling of many stories of Jews and other minority groups persecuted by the Nazis in run up to the war and then during it.

Imperial War Museum, London

This bottom up approach required time to absorb but had a layering and relentlessness to it that I found very powerful.  The portrayal of the seemingly inexorable drive to horror, from before the First World War to the Final Solution, was well done and did not shy away from the relative indifference of the world until it was too late.  The history is well known but, nonetheless, rather depressing and the exhibition’s intermingling of the stories of individuals with items indicating the sheer scale of the atrocities was as shocking as ever.  My brief tour of some of the other sections of the museum showing uniforms, planes, tanks and rockets felt a bit trivial afterwards and I’ll have to revisit those another day.

Prior to our London trip we made our first visit of the year to The Newt Garden in East Somerset.  As readers of this blog will know, we have been a few times before.  We love it because it is already a spectacular garden and it is continuing to evolve so there always seems to be something new to see (this time, a Japanese Garden and a ‘Beezantium’ – an exhibition about bees).  There is also a lovely restaurant.

View Of The Newt Hotel From The Gardens

We are now members and to justify the cost of membership we will have to go a few more times this year – what a hardship!

Hen Houses In The Newt Gardens

Then, after London, we had a day out at Compton Verney which is an exhibition space and park that we had not visited before.  LSW had seen a recommendation on one of the many social media connections she has.  Specifically this was for two exhibitions that were coming to a close.  One was of Grinling Gibbons, a master woodcarver (2021 was the 300th anniversary of his death) the other was of paintings by John Nash (younger brother of the more famous wartime painter, Paul Nash).

Sea Of Aconites In Front Of Compton Verney House

Both exhibitions were popular, a little crowded and worth seeing.  Grinling Gibbons’s background (initially around the docks in Holland) and his drive to network and commercialise as he built up his business in England was described clearly and interestingly and the pieces on show were terrifically detailed and impressive.  However, the full impact of his work would be best appreciated in the houses where his carvings still decorate walls today and I’d have liked to have found out more about how the work was done.

Example Of The Detailed Carvings Of Grinling Gibbons

The John Nash exhibition was also well put together and illustrated carefully how his career developed through the First World War, through his love of the countryside, then as a War artist in the Second World war and finally as a retiree travelling the UK and settling in his rural surroundings (as, among other things, a seed catalog and gardening book illustrator).  Unfortunately, apart from a few notable exceptions (see ‘Over The Top’ below), I didn’t like the paintings as much as I had hoped (or expected); insufficient liveliness of colour in too many of the works for my liking. 

‘Over The Top’ By John Nash

The house grounds, designed by Capability Brown, were lovely in the sun (though muddy underfoot) and the lunch in the restaurant was very reasonable.  It was another good day out very much in line with our New Year resolution to get out of the house and our immediate locale rather more.  Later this week: London and Edinburgh!

January Sunrise At Home. Trips Are Nice, But Home Is Too!

Isle Of Skye Christmas

I described our journey to Edinburgh and then the Isle of Skye in my last post.  Here I’ll relate some of the high points of what was probably the best UK holiday I have had since I was child.  We all (Middle Son, Youngest Son, their partners, Long-Suffering Wife and myself) had a fabulous Christmas period on the westernmost edge of the island.

Our Holiday Location

Our adventure started the first full day after our arrival.  As Youngest Son (YS) and his partner took up primary breakfast-making duty (a role they thankfully assumed pretty much throughout the week since they were very good at it), so the murky dawn dissipated.  Gradually, the full glory of our view across Loch Pooltiel to the cliff and waterfall beyond, became clear.  Then, after breakfast, we all opened the little gate separating the house area from the open moorland and set out for a walk.  Our hearts leapt almost immediately as we spotted a seal near the nearby salmon farm.

Little Gate From Our House To Peat And Cliffs

We wandered over ancient strip fields, boggy peat and wonderfully named craggy ridges: Biod Ban, An Ceannaich and Druim nan-Sgarbh.  The colours of the moss, lichen and grass underfoot were gorgeous and then, as we breached one more ridge, we were able to look south across unexpectedly dramatic cliffs.  It was a breath-taking moment.

South Facing Cliffs Behind Our Holiday Home In Lower Milovaig

Over the following few, rather grey days, I continued to walk around the local area.  The nearest village and shop was a pleasant but sometimes damp, 45 minute walk.  This was either along the loch or over the hills behind the house and between a mix of old crofts and new, designer holiday-let houses. 

The Surprisingly Well-Stocked Village Shop In Glendale

The infrequent copses of trees along the way dripped with lichen.  The landscape colours were a little mournful but somehow peaceful, comforting and easy on the eye.  They reminded me of some of the colours I recall from children’s paint boxes: burnt umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, crimson, teal green.

The Colours Underfoot

Between walks and other outings, we settled into chat, films and football on the telly, meals and games.  Monopoly Deal inevitably appeared but new games called Heckmeck (translates to ‘Nonsense’ in German) and Obama Llama were favourites.  I was ok at Heckmeck but hopeless at games like Obama Llama and Heads Up! which involved acting out – like souped-up Charades.  Simulating a penguin without speaking by waddling then diving onto the sofa (i.e. the icy sea!) was probably the low point for me.

Panorama South Of Neist Point

As the weather improved, we all headed out to see the most westerly point of Skye and the lighthouse at Neist Point (Rubha na h-Eist).  The lighthouse is, as expected, beautifully positioned among high cliffs.  The rocks, and plant life hanging onto them, were interesting and we spent a happy hour amongst these chatting and watching the waves.

Neist Point Lighthouse
Rocks (Basalt) And Lichen At Neist Point

By Christmas Eve afternoon, sun was beginning to peek between the layers of clouds more regularly.  To celebrate that and the impending Christmas, we scooted back out to Neist Point with a bottle of prosecco to celebrate the sunset over the Inner Hebrides.  We were taken aback by the strength of the wind – it made the prosecco hard to pour!  It was another very memorable time for our group. 

Sunset At Neist Point

Christmas Day morning started with Secret Santa present opening.  Long-Suffering Wife was my not-so-Secret Santa and she took the opportunity to give me a smart wash bag which replaced a perfectly effective, but admittedly unattractive, plastic shopping bag which I have used since a trip to South Africa almost four years ago.  LSW was overjoyed as that faithful plastic bag was discarded at last to hold kitchen waste and then be deposited in the rubbish bins.

We then postponed Christmas lunch until after dusk and, instead, used the hours of light to explore the Coral Beach (Traigh a Chorail) north of our nearest town (Dunvegan) and its coastal castle.  On the walk to the beaches, we saw a sea otter – the first I have ever seen. 

The Walk To Coral Beach (The White In The Distance)

The beaches themselves are made up of bleached fragments of a coral called Maerl that grows in Loch Dunvegan and which, when alive, is deep red.  The rising sun, bright blue sky, deep blue sea, rocky promontories and white beaches led to another batch of photos and happy memories.

LSW conjured up a lovely Christmas dinner from local vegetables and two very free-range chickens.  As per recent Christmas traditions, I provided a Christmas picture quiz and Christmas hats laced with sparklers, rather too many chocolate Brussel sprouts, jokes and (cardboard) party poppers.  As had been the case every day, the drinks flowed alongside extremely tasty and filling plates food including, of course given that it was Christmas Day, Christmas pudding with brandy butter. 

Christmas Gingerbread House, Tree And Droopy-Eyed Snowman Made, Enterprisingly, By The ‘Younger Ones’

The sky was so clear that night that when we turned off the house lights, went outside and looked up for while, we could see the Milky Way.  It was as clear as I have seen it since I was in remote Madagascar over 15 years ago.  We even saw a couple of shooting stars (but not the Northern Lights).  A very jolly time, enlivened by some sparkler waving, was had by all.

Our holiday crescendo was on Boxing Day – our last full day on Skye.  YS was very keen to take us to a mountainous area on the other north side of Skye called The Quiraing that he had visited on a previous trip to the isle.  The weather was cold and icy but there was barely a cloud in the sky, so off we set. 

Loch Dunvegan Near Colbost

The route to The Quiraing was beautiful.  It skirted island-strewn lochs and passed through small villages and fishing towns before we headed inland to the northern mountains of Skye.  As we emerged from our cars at the tourist car park, The Quiraing stretched out wonderfully before us.  It was one of the most jaw dropping landscapes I have seen in the UK.

The Quiraing, North Skye

The subsequent walk along The Quiraing to The Needle was just tricky enough in the patches of ice to be a challenging adventure but straightforward enough to feel safe.  The sound of collapsing ice sheets and icicles on the cliffs above added to the sense of drama. 

The Needle, The Quiraing

Everywhere one looked, the vistas were huge and we capped these views with a sighting of a golden eagle (another first in the wild for me).  In the distance, the snow-capped tops of mountains on the Hebrides were beautiful reminders that this was a rare sunny day and we were so lucky to have one on our last day. 

View South East From The Quiraing

Even the journey back to Edinburgh the following day was a final hurrah for sun-lit, mist-draped, snow-covered mountains. 

Loch Garry On The Way Home
On the Way Home

We had been so fortunate with the weather.  We had been fortunate with Covid and avoiding it.  We had been fortunate that all the holiday logistics had worked out well.  We had been fortunate in so many ways to have a Scottish holiday we will remember forever.

Sunset Over The Hebrides From The Cliffs Behind Our Holiday Rental

Getting To Skye At Christmas

On Christmas Eve 2020, shortly after we had smuggled our sons out to our Gloucestershire home just before the 2020 Christmas Coronavirus lockdown, Youngest Son (YS) suggested that we hire a house in Skye for Christmas 2021.  Everyone was extremely keen on the idea and, after a few quick texts, our sons’ girlfriends were enthusiastic too.  I handed YS my credit card and he immediately booked a brand new, designer house on the western edge of Skye with the hope that Covid would be long passed or at least largely neutralised.

A year is a long time in which much has happened.  Covid is changed but very much still with us and it is still hampering all travel, socialising and entertainment.  Also, our first grandchild – not even a dot when we booked the house in Skye – has arrived recently.  That meant that Eldest Son and his partner had to drop out from our 2021 Christmas adventure.   To compensate, we all decided to incorporate a stop in Edinburgh on the way to and from Skye so that we could all (re-)introduce ourselves to First Grandchild (FG) around Christmas.

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I travelled by train to Edinburgh.  It’s a long journey but we decided against using the electric car because, in Winter, it requires charging so frequently that the journey would have taken a whole day.  We decided again a flight from Bristol because the cost for taking our bags was almost as much as for us plus we are trying to avoid flying in a probably futile (but well meaning) effort to reduce our carbon footprint.  Fortunately the trains were entirely on time and, with the exception of some rowdy 20-somethings who got on at Darlington, mask wearing was common.  We felt fairly safe and comfortable.

Getting to Edinburgh a few days ahead of the others (staying once again in an excellent Premier Inn Hub with small but perfectly formed rooms) enabled us to spend more time with FG and his parents and have a couple of extra days in the city we are coming to love. 

Blue Sky View Across The Meadows To Arthurs Seat, Edinburgh

The weather was very mixed.  We had some wonderful blue sky days and some that were dull and moist – the local word is ‘dreich’. 

Murky, Moody View Of Edinburgh Castle

Regardless, at night the Christmas lights on the commercial buildings and between the curtains of the Georgian terrace houses and flats enlivened the atmosphere. 

Christmas Lights In Edinburgh

With the last-minute news that Middle Son’s cold symptoms wasn’t the result of Covid and that he and his partner’s PCR tests had proved negative, we all convened in an AirBnB armed with negative Lateral Flow Tests.  We were all able to have multiple turns at holding FG who was, of course, absolutely lovely.  He is engaging eye contact increasingly and, although he usually maintains a vaguely suspicious and curious look, is starting to smile.  And then we set off for Skye.

Beauty On The Way To Skye

First we loaded up two hire cars with our luggage and panicked a bit when we saw how little room was left for the planned ‘big shop’ to get food and drink for the following seven days on Skye.  In a further wrinkle to our plans, Scottish licensing laws forced us to split the shop for food from that for drink which we postponed until Fort William.  Ultimately, it was all good and we got what we needed (and more).

At first, the drive across Scotland was through the dreich weather.  Then, suddenly, we were driving through wonderful fairytale, mountain landscapes overlaid by miles and miles of hoar frost.  I have seen such frosts in local pockets before but never on this impressive scale.  It was a magical sight. 

(Blurred) Pictures Of Many Square Miles Of Hoar Frost From A Moving Car

Blue Skies Over Hoar Frost At Dalwinnie

Then, as darkness began to close in, we passed the romantically positioned Eilean Donan Castle, looking rather mournful in the descending gloom, and then traversed the Skye Bridge onto the island.  Remarkably, there was still 90 minutes of driving to go (MS and YS took the strain on that).

Eilean Dolan Castle At Dusk

In darkness we found the house we had rented, unloaded all our goodies, confirmed the high quality of the premises, allocated the bedrooms, got the woodburner going, stretched our limbs and enjoyed the first of the evening meals prepared on a rota among the six of us.  It’s so nice having young people around who have the energy and willingness to prepare a fish curry for six after driving for day; delicious.

Our House For Christmas Week: Wood House (https://harlosh.co/wood-h)

When I was working, Christmas was a time to wind down and chill out.  When I started out on my career, I tended to work around Christmas but the pace was usually slow since few others were around and I could relax (relatively) without wasting precious holiday.  Increasingly, as the boys arrived and the family home moved to the country, I realised the benefit of an extended break at Christmas.  It became a time of winding down. 

Retirement now seems to be bringing a reversal.  Recently, Christmas seems to be one of the most energetic times of the year.  Christmases have been increasingly busy, especially for LSW as she focused on Christmas lunch at our house with large numbers of family.  We stepped up the activity levels even further with our Scottish adventure this year.  In a subsequent blog post I’ll describe the benefits of that uptick in activity as we spent Christmas on Skye (spoiler: it was fabulous!).

Happy New Year!

The Lull Before Christmas

Life has been relatively quiet recently and, increasingly, I have dipped out of large social gatherings such as the Community Shop Christmas Party and the monthly local Pub Quiz.  This is in the hope that I avoid the latest Omicron variant of Coronavirus at least until after the Christmas period. 

Christmas too is going to involve fewer social contacts than usual but we do hope to see all our sons, their partners and our new grandchild.  It’s going to be a treat but a different treat from the usual.

The last few days have included a number of Christmas preparations (including my booster jab).  Our family are doing a Secret Santa again this year so little present buying is required.  But, despite the other differences to our Christmas Day this year, I am maintaining the recent traditions of home-made party hats and a Christmas picture quiz.  Both are now ready to go. 

Local walks have continued to be a Covid-safe feature of my retirement.   I’ve been on a couple of different ones with mates from the village.  That is always interesting, not only for the conversation but because, no matter how many times I traverse the local footpaths, they almost always take me on routes or to places that they know but which are slightly different from my normal haunts.

Local Woodland Old Spot Pigs – Well Fed By The Undergrowth And Rather Fatter Since The Last Time I Saw Them!
An Unusual, Local Double-Stepped Stile I Hadn’t Seen Before

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also squeezed in a rather impromptu visit to Bath.  Walking past the Georgian Crescents and through the streets reprised a visit we did a couple of months ago.  Then, I visited The Holburne Museum and saw an interesting exhibition on (Dante Gabriel) Rossetti and his portraits of his muses and girlfriends (usually, they were both).   He certainly seems to like women with big, lustrous hairdos!

A Rossetti Portrait, Holburne Museum, Bath
View Of Great Pulteney Street From The Holburne Museum

This time, the main purpose to the visit was to try out lunch at the relatively new Landrace Bakery.  We have loved the Bakery and café since it opened well before Covid struck; LSW has been going there since it opened.  Landrace has more than survived the lockdowns of the last 18 months by evolving and shifting its focus to takeaway and, most recently, a small restaurant upstairs.  The lunch we had there didn’t disappoint.  The service was informal but excellent, the servings were tasty and of a good size and, despite the ‘London prices’, lunch was good value overall.  We’ll go again and we recommend it.

Georgian Crescents Overlooking High Common, Bath
Luke Jerram’s Impressive ‘Moon’ Artwork, On Show When We Visited Bath Cathedral

But now, attention turns to a trip to Scotland and to Christmas.  The socialising may have been scaled back in the run up and the numbers around the Christmas table will be less than a third of last year.  Nonetheless I am looking forward to it more than ever after the constraints of the last year and in advance of the restrictions that are likely to come as the pandemic moves to its next stage.  Hopefully we will get away with a great little Christmas!

I hope too that readers of this have a happy and healthy Christmas and holiday period.