Messages in the Street

Walk along any street, anywhere, and it won’t be long before you come across a message. Maybe light-hearted, like this one spotted in Liverpool …

… maybe political. You can’t go far in Catalonia, Spain without coming across messages and slogans demanding independence. These shots were all taken in Berga, where the mood of virtually the entire population there was not in doubt.

The next shots were all taken when thousands of us took to the streets, again and again, in 2018 and 2019 voicing our misgivings about the prospect of Brexit. It gives us no satisfaction whatever to see that our fears were entirely justified.

In India, I saw messages that were more like public service announcements ..

And in Edinburgh, in the National Museum of Scotland, this …

Inuksuk, by Peter Irniq, 1998, uses a traditional technique used by the Inuit to convey messages about good fishing grounds etc.

Let’s end though, as we began, with a message, this time in Thessaloniki, simply intended to bring good cheer …

For Donna’s Lens-Artists Challenge #234: Messages

Flashback Friday Looks Skywards

Eight years ago, none of us knew that five years later, our local tracks – the only ones permitted to us during our Lockdown Daily Exercise – would become almost as familiar to us as our own garden path. This is a post I wrote about a nearby walk on January 27th 2015, when I thought that I’d seen all there was to be seen locally. I was wrong as it happened, and later realised how very much more there was to discover when Lockdown provided the incentive. For Fandango’s Flashback Friday.

Only Sky

The days are short
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

John Updike, 'January', A Child’s Calendar

A bright winter’s afternoon.  Just time, before the evening cold sets in, to get out for a couple of hours of brisk walking: 5 miles or so along familiar paths.  So familiar that this time, I focus on the sky: changeable, unpredictable.

Sometimes it’s moody, sometimes cheerful, sometimes simply rather grey and colourless: at other times dramatic, particularly towards sunset.  Come and walk with me to watch the clouds.

Monday Portrait: Centre Stage? A Beetle

We’ve seen all kinds of creatures have their moment as stars of Monday Portraits. But usually animals and birds. Beetles? Not so much. But I find this Forest Cockchafer to be a handsome fellow. We spotted this one on our Balkans adventure last year, but he could just as well have lived in woodland or farmland here.

He’s large – up to 30 mm in length. He’s clumsy, and likely to bump into things. He chomps away on leaves and flowers, but not to a destructive extent. These beetles only live for five or six weeks: even though, as a larva, they spend maybe three to five years growing underground.

He’ll make a large whirring noise in flight and may well clatter into your window panes. Not yet though. Look out for him in May and June. Remember, you saw him here first …

The Principality of the Brothers Grimm revisited

The other day, I wrote about the rather mysterious and enchanting places which are Britain’s temperate rainforests. I’m not sure if France’s Labyrinthe Verte also qualifies, but it’s a very promising candidate. Here’s a post I wrote some eleven years ago, after we’d walked there.


Sunday. We went to Nébias in the Aude. Just outside the village, you’ll find the Labyrinthe Verte, a natural maze, with winding pathways through a forest, where rocks and plants have created a bewildering array of natural passageways which are both beautiful and fun to explore. These paths are cut deep through limestone, often at shoulder height.  Somehow, we’d never visited.  But today, thanks to the Rando del’Aubo, our walking group, we did.

It’s been a lovely bright spring day today, but the forested labyrinth is never really sunny.  Trees, their trunks and branches bearded with feathery fronds of moss and lichen, crowd the limestone crags and fissured passageways.  Deprived of light and space, they assume crippled and fanciful shapes, or else aim straight for the sun, their thin trunks competing with each other for a place to establish their roots.  It’s not eerie however.  On this warm March day, we wouldn’t have been surprised to meet an ethereal band of fairies whirling through the dampened glades: on a bad night in November, perhaps a gnarled and wicked hag from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Every time of year has its own magic apparently.  On the coldest days of winter, the mosses and lichens are white and crisp with frost, making the forest fit for a Snow Queen.

At lunch time, since we were in France and eating’s important, the darkened passages unexpectedly cleared.  Suddenly, beneath blue skies and bright sunshine there was a fissured limestone pavement, providing surfaces and seating for our lunchtime picnic.  Which Malcolm had somehow left behind.  The members of the group magicked their very own version of Stone Soup for him. Do you know this tale?

Once upon a time, there was great famine throughout the land. Villagers squirrelled away any tiny amounts of food that they had. One day, a soldier came by, asking for a place to sleep for the night, and perhaps a meal. The villagers explained there was no food. ‘That’s alright, I have plenty. I have a magic stone that cooks delicious soup for me every night’. And he hauled a great cauldron from his pack, set a fire, filled his pot with water, and reverently placed a stone – also in his pack – into the water. Eventually the water simmered. The soldier tasted it. ‘Delicious!’ he pronounced. ‘Now, if anyone happened to have a carrot to add, it would be even better’. A woman in the crowd hurried home and found – two. The soldier declared the soup even tastier, but if anyone had some cabbage…? Then …. an onion? …some celery? … potato? The butcher found some scraps of pork and everything went into the pot. Before long, the soup was delicious indeed, and everyone filled their bellies. But the soldier wouldn’t sell his stone: no, not for any money.

On this occasion, within half a minute Malcolm had more food then the rest of the group put together. A mustardy ham baguette, some home cured sausage, a chunk of bread, a chocolate pudding, and apple…. The power of working together!

The afternoon was different.  Walking away from the enchanting and enchanted labyrinth, we came to more open country, where we passed first farmland, then the edges of forest with tracks showing where wild boar and deer had recently passed.  Finally, we climbed, and had views across to the mountains and the walks we’ve enjoyed there on other Sunday rambles, finishing up listening to the lively splashing of a waterfall.

7th March 2011

The featured image is from the archive of La Dépêche du Midi, our local paper when we lived in France.

Thoroughly British Rainforests

I have just been reading a book about rainforests. In Britain. Not the exotic tropical rainforests seen on television through which, drenched in sweat, you hack your way, attacked by insects and snakes as you wield your machete: but the gentler British version, temperate rainforest. These increasingly rare woods now occupy under 1% of the earth’s surface. No wonder they’re a best-kept secret.

Guy Shrubsole‘s The Lost Rainforests of Britain is an engaging and thoroughly absorbing account of a National Treasure of which most of us in Britain are completely unaware. Our temperate rainforests are spectacular woodlands with ancient, often stunted gnarled trees, draped and and bearded with mosses and lichens, and once marched across the British Isles from Dartmoor in the south to the north of Scotland – most particularly on the more sodden western seaboard. These days this unique habitat is increasingly under threat, and tiny pockets of such forest are now hard to find, and increasingly isolated and encroached upon.

Guy Shrubsole is the evangelist who seeks to protect and save them. To tell the story of this once widespread forest, he discusses geology, farming history, climate, Celtic Druids, the Romantic poets, JRR Tolkein – even Arthur Conan Doyle. He maps the eco-system in detail and calls for immediate political and public support: Shrubsole is a campaigner as well as a writer. This book may sound worthy, and therefore possibly dull. But it’s very readable, elegiac, amusing, entrancing and shocking by turn. It may turn out to be 2023’s Must Read.

None of these images is from a temperate rainforest: I haven’t – yet – visited one. But the picture shows somewhere I have been: the so-called Lud’s Church, a ferny gorge near Gradbach in Staffordshire, where the cool damp microclimate qualifies it as the very tiniest of rainforests.

I read this for the 2023 Gaia/Nature Reading Challenge

It fired my imagination, and reminded me that I may already have explored such a dim, green and shady place, crowded with trees clothed in soft green mosses, and draped with tangles of lichen, evocative of a spirit life with wraiths, witches and goblins. It wasn’t here in England, but in southern France, where even in the foothills of the Pyrenees it’s hot and often dry. I’ll post about that next …

Browsing through the Backlist

Guilty as charged. I read a book. I thoroughly enjoy it. ‘That was great’. I think. ‘I must read more by her/him’. But then another enticing book by somebody else entirely comes along, and … I don’t.

Cathy of What Cathy Read Next fame has a challenge to help put this right, and she’s called it Backlist Burrow. Choose six authors whom you’ve enjoyed, find two books from their backlist … read them … and report back. I don’t undertake to read two, though I might. But one for sure. And here are my chosen authors.

I read Edith Wharton‘s novella Ethan Frome for Six Degrees of Separation back in December 2021, and immediately vowed to read more from this upper-class New Yorker who, during the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth was able to portray so incisively the characters she created. I still haven’t. Now I have to…

I wonder if this resembles the Massachussetts that Ethan Frome knew? (Ilse Orsel, Unsplash)

Another unforgettable character was Berta Isla. Javier Marías describes her life thoughtfully, discursively. Her husband, working for the secret service is almost constantly absent and unable in any way meaningfully to communicate with her and participate in the marriage. I want to read more from Marías.

Berta and her husband Tomás grew up together in Spain (though not in Zaragoza where this photo of the Basilica of Pilar was taken). After University in Oxford, his career took him to the mists of she-knew-not-where. (Oxford: Lina Kivaka, Pexels)

I read Mary Lawson‘s A Town called Solace when it was chosen for our local bookgroup. I immediately fell for the complex web of characters she created, and the interest she brought to the life of a small and humdrum Canadian town. So – more please!

I wonder if this is a track near Solace? (Ember Navarro, Unsplash)

When I chose Roy Jacobsen‘s Eyes of the Rigel from the library, I was unaware that this Norwegian tale, set on a small island after WWII was the last book in a trilogy: an immersive story of memory, belonging and guilt. I need to catch up with the first two: The Unseen, and White Shadow.

Northern Lights in northern Norway (Dee: Unsplash)

Nicola Upson‘s Stanley and Elsie, a fictionalised telling of the story of the painter Stanley Spencer was a compulsive read. Having a look at her crime novels centred on the life of Josephine Tey seems like a good move to me.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Stanley Spencer

Georgina Harding. Here’s another author I want more of, and here’s another instance of my inadvertently starting off with the third book in a trilogy: Harvest. This is a thoughtful picture of a family accommodating itself to an earlier tragedy. I’d like to read the back stories in The Gun Room and Land of the Living.

Harvest, not in Norfolk where Harding’s Harvest is set, but here in North Yorkshire.

This of course is in addition to tackling the (largely virtual) tottering pile of books recommended by friends, book bloggers, newspaper reviews. Really, it’s all quite impossible.

Postcards from 2022

How to summarise 2022 in just a few photos? That’s what the Lens-Artist Challenge demands of us this week. What makes it so hard is that a memory is invested in every photo. My own favourite photos may demonstrate no particular skill, but can transport me – and not you – straight back to a treasured moment. Ah well, let’s give it a go, and see what I can find that we can all enjoy.

Let’s book-end the year with ordinary pleasures: Fountains Abbey in springtime, and in late autumn…

Let’s remember summer with – here – an extraordinary sight: Scar House Reservoir, almost unable to do its job of providing water.

Scar House Reservoir in August 2022.

Let’s have a look at happy moments: Ripon’s first Theatre Festival took to the streets, Masham’s annual Sheep Fair returned after a couple of years’ Covid-hiatus. And my family enjoys one of life’s simpler pleasures: curling up with a good book.

Memorable May: a fantastic few days in the Balkans: North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, to enjoy its wildlife. A very few photos stand in for the whole experience of this area, still in many ways rooted in its traditional past.

Shepherds on the move all day and every day. leading their sheep and goats in quest of pasturage.

… and not forgetting the stars of the show: peacocks at Lake Ohrid.

The header image shows Lake Prespa, and the island of Agios Achillios, where we spent a few days.

In Catalonia with The Barcelona Branch of the family, we had an unforgettable trip to what may be The World’s Best Museum, CosmoCaixa, Barcelona.

We’ll finish off with Christmas lights at Eltham Palace. It was so cold, no wonder my fingers slipped!

Six Degrees of Separation: to Write a Book, or to Cook a Bear?

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Six Degrees of Separation: Katc W

This month’s starter book, Beach Read by Emily Henry is one I had no desire to read. However, one summary I read describes it as being about two very different writers. ‘she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast‘ Goodreads).

Somehow, that put me in mind of Maggie O’Farrell‘s The Marriage Portrait. In 15th Century Florence, Lucrezia, third daughter Cosimo de’ Medici, finds herself betrothed, then married to Alfonso, heir to the Duke of Ferrara when her older sister, his original choice, dies. The story flits between her early life in Florence and her early married life. Underneath, throughout her marriage, her conviction that she will be killed by her apparently loving husband bubbles away. This is a tale, sumptuously and evocatively told. It’s a mixture of fact, of weaving in allusions learnt from Browning’s poem My Last Duchess, from myth and fairytale and from gothic horror to create an engaging and highly pictorial story, which goes a long way towards helping us understand what it might have been to be Lucrezia: child, noblewoman, wife.

From one woman’s life to this case a wholly fictional one, as told in Laird Hunt‘s Zorrie. This is the story of an ordinary woman living in rural Indiana, born during the 1930s Depression years. It’s quietly, beautifully told, from the days when Zorrie is orphaned and put in the care of a resentful spinster aunt, through the years of her adolescence, marriage and beyond to old age. Zorrie’s is a narrow world, but she has the same struggles with grief, with loneliness that befall most of us at some stage. But she also experiences love, and deep friendships, and reaps the rewards of steadfast hard work. I was moved by and involved in the story told in this short book. 

From one simple life to another, in Limberlost, by Robbie Arnott. Set in rural Tasmania towards the end of WWII, , this book ‘s earlier pages chronicle the life of young Ned, son of an apple farmer. As the book moves on, episodes from his whole life interweave the narrative, and indicate how events from his boyhood inform the adult he became. What makes this book special is its sparse yet luminous prose: its ability to make readers care for Ned, who has difficulty articulating his feelings and aspirations.  The novel isn’t plot-driven. It relies on various episodes such as his caring for a fierce marsupial, a quoll, whom he has inadvertently trapped to illustrate his character, his inability to trust himself to explain and justify. The one real drama in his marriage isn’t really explored. This quiet, understated book may well be my book-of-the-year 2022.

We’re still crossing continents in my next book: to Europe – to Italy. I’m staying here, by Marco Balzano. A powerful, understated novel sweeping us through much of the twentieth century. Trina narrates her story to her missing daughter. She lives in Curòn, in the German-speaking Italian Tyrol, and witnesses Mussolini’s attempts to Italianise it and stifle its German heritage; the impact of the Nazis and war on their lives; and finally sees their community destroyed by the building of a – it turns out – inefficient dam which drowns Curòn and surrounding villages. Important moments of history are told here through the lives of ordinary people, few of whom are described, other than as, for instance ‘the fat woman’, ‘the old man’ – they become ciphers for us all.. That is what makes this book, so simply told, so potent.

Now we’re off to Spain. I picked Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson from the library shelves for no better reason than that Barcelona is a city I know well since our daughter moved there ten years ago. Yhis is a book with a strong sense of place. Not Tourist Barcelona, with its must-see monuments, its busy cafes and its omni-present pick-pockets: but the varied city which all kinds of people from dyed-in-the-wool Catalans to ex-pats and immigrants call home. Here are three interlinked novellas, each with a very different character at its heart. They never meet, but are linked loosely through neighbours, colleagues and unconnected events. The book explores themes such as immigration, racism, nostalgia, lack of self-knowledge: old relationships that linger on. Thomson conjures up people whose complicated lives are utterly plausible, and a city that lives and breathes without reference to the tourist haunts so many travellers see. An immersive book.

These first five books all have a single character at the story’s heart. My sixth does too in many ways. To Cook a Bear, by Mikael Niemi. But is the hero the narrator, Jusi, or the pastor? We’re in northern Sweden in 1852, within the Arctic Circle – an area where Swedes, Finns and the Sami people all live. Revivalist preacher Laestadius, an avid amateur botanist is pastor in a community here, and takes in an abandoned Sami boy, Jussi, who’s suffered much abuse and poverty. This pastor is astute and observant – more so than the local sheriff, and it’s he who continues his pursuit for the truth when first, a local girl is killed, then another is grievously attacked: the easy, but incorrect answer is – a bear. The pastor teaches Jussi to read, write and use his brain, and it’s largely the boy who tells the story, though he remains, as do the Sami people generally, disregarded and despised by the local community. This is a good story and well told, portraying an isolated community, reliant on gossip, tradition, religion and superstition to get by. There are twists which bring the pastor (who is an actual historical figure) and Jussi into real danger. This is Scandi Noir introduced into the history books, and emphatically not a detective story with added costume.

So I’ve come full circle, by beginning and ending my chain with two stories inspired by the lives of real people. If I’m honest, this was also driven by my wish to include my very favourite book title of 2022: To Cook a Bear. The other factor making this list into a chain is that – quite exceptionally, I read all six of these books straight after one another (though not in this order) since the last appearance of Six Degrees.

And next month’s starter? Trust, by Hernan Diaz. I’ve reserved it at the library already.