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Burns Monument

This post was filed under: Travel, .

‘Making space’

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery isn’t an immediately obvious place to host an exhibition of photographs of architecture, but there is an exciting resonance here. While the rest of the building is dedicated to representations of people, this exhibition comments on how physical space impacts people’s lives.

You don’t need a medical degree, nor even a Victoria Wood sketch of a medical school interview, to know that architecture can have a lasting impact on the life changes of individuals: poor housing exacerbates health inequalities, for example. Perhaps because of my profession, it was Chris Leslie’s photographs of Glasgow which particularly caught my eye.

We all know how the city’s 1960s towerblocks of ‘urban renewal’ turned out not to be a lasting solution, with many of the blocks being demolished after as little as forty years. It’s the backstory to any number of novels I’ve read in recent years if nothing else! Yet Leslie’s work brings home the human aspect of transforming the city’s landscape in a way that other representations haven’t. There is something about documentary photography that brings home the folly of the timescale and the impact of the displacement. It also made me wonder about the appalling ecological footprint of the schemes.

Leslie’s photograph Bird Man of Red Road drew out the social exclusion of the last residents of many of the flats, asylum seekers. I didn’t know of that particular temporary afterlife of the blocks, and it adds another strand to their story.

There was much more to contemplate in the exhibition, including a dizzying large-print photograph of a San Francisco lobby by Andreas Gursky, but I know that Leslie’s work will stay with me.

Making Space continues at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 3 March.

This post was filed under: Art, , , , , .

‘Connecting histories’

It’s a reflection of my own cultural biases that when reflecting on the impact of colonialism and the British Empire on botany, of all things, my mind leaps to the introduction of species to the UK. Plants such as fuchsias, geraniums and petunias arrived on our shores through a complex and uncomfortable web of international relations.

This exhibition made me think for the first time about how the movement of species is more complicated than things reaching British gardens. Empire introduced coffee and tobacco to India, for example, which I would ignorantly have assumed were native to India.

But this exhibition is really about reckoning with part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s colonial history. Its collection includes a significant number of botanical drawings by Indian artists commissioned by Scottish doctors employed by the East India Company. Doctors, of course, because the Garden’s primary function was medical. Very little is known about any of the artists: in many cases, not even their names.

This exhibition of their drawings, therefore, becomes not only an appreciation of their inherent beauty and accuracy but also a sad reflection. It reminds the visitor with marvellous clarity of the way that the Empire often failed to recognise the personhood of those on whose remarkable skills and talents it relied.

Connecting histories continues at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh until 14 April.

This post was filed under: Art, , , .

The UK’s last giant pandas

In 2018, I visited Bai Yun, a Giant Panda, in San Diego. Although I’m fond of Giant Pandas, I’ve never visited those closer to home in Edinburgh. Now that they are returning to China, I will never see them in Edinburgh. And with their departure, no Giant Pandas will be left in the UK.

As Le Monde notes, the US and Australia are also suffering similar fates, with China’s programme of panda diplomacy moving to focus on Middle Eastern powers like Qatar.

The world never stands still, even for pandas.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

The last suppers

I told you a few days ago about going to visit a Peter Howson retrospective. While I was there, I saw his 2006 painting of The Last Supper.

While waiting for my train home, I popped into the National Gallery and happened upon Nicolas Poussin’s 1694 painting of (essentially) the same scene, The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Generally, I prefer more abstract paintings to ones with photo-like realism, but this pairing disproves that rule.

The Howson painting is clearly more abstract, yet I prefer the Poussin. I particularly like Poussin’s use of symbolic light. I also think the composition is clever: unlike most representations of the Last Supper, Poussin has shown the disciples seated around a table. Poussin’s disciples all seem to me to have their own personalities, whereas Howson’s seem more like an indistinct group.

I’ve probably seen more exhibitions this year than in the rest of my life combined, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some of my preconceptions are being challenged—but it nevertheless feels arresting to me!

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been to see ‘When the Apple Ripens’

I don’t proclaim to be an art expert, or even a knowledgable amateur. Prior to visiting this major retrospective exhibition, despite his fame and acclamation, I couldn’t say I knew who Peter Howson was.

Born in London, Howson spent his formative years in Ayrshire before venturing off to study at the Glasgow School of Art. Today, he is a highly celebrated figurative artist.

During the early 1990s, he took on the role of the official ‘British war artist’ for the conflict in Bosnia, an experience that left a profound imprint on his mental and emotional wellbeing. A decade later, he found comfort in Christianity, a shift that brought a religious focus to his work. In recent years, he has crafted artistic responses to Brexit, the pandemic, and various other contemporary events.

Admittedly, Howson’s figurative and almost cartoonish style doesn’t particularly resonate with me. However, in a three-floor mega-exhibition, there are bound to be a few stand-out pieces. Below, I’ve highlighted three artworks that captivated me more than the rest.

This is My Tale Shall Be Told, a 1995 work which is apparently based on William Hogarth’s 1730s series A Rake’s Progress. I’m not familiar enough with art history to appreciate that.

I liked this because of the surrealism and the bold colours. I liked that the girl in the background had a Munch-like scream at the scene of the bearded lady inexplicably attempting to ride a dog. I like the way that the child in the foreground is contorted in a way which looks natural at first glance, but impossible on a closer inspection. The recognisable inclusion of the ‘fat controller’ gave this a grounding in the real world.

I especially enjoyed the way that the paintbrushes were left colourless in such a colourful scene.

This is a 1994 piece from Bosnia, called Serb with Child. I was struck by the abstract nature of this piece, which isn’t typical for Howson. I thought it said something about the way that the anger and violence were more prominent for him than the specifics of the awful situation.

From the same period, this is House Warming. Here, the contrast between the horrific, violent events in the foreground and the everyday scene in the top-left of the canvas is striking.

This helped to bring home to me the reality of living in a war zone. The contrast between everyday life and the battle surrounding it has been much-observed in the current conflict in Ukraine. But, as only art can, I think this representation made me ponder the reality of living through a situation like that.

I also thought that the juxtaposition said something about how close we all are to violent conflict: it seemed like it was commenting on the fragility of society, and how easily any society can tip over into unrecognisable violence.

When the Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65 continues at the City Art Centre until 1 October.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , .

I’ve been to see ‘Shifting Vistas’

This small exhibition covers 250 years of artistic representations of Scottish landscapes… although in a slightly odd curatorial decision, some paintings are of landscapes in other parts of the world.

This is a small exhibition, but there were a few pictures which were new to me, and which I particularly enjoyed. I didn’t take any of the pictures in this post, as photography was forbidden.

This is one of Joan Eardley’s seascapes. I think it is the one I saw in the gallery, showing Catterline near Stonehaven, but I may be mistaken. My memory isn’t photographic, and there’s no published catalogue to compare against.

I like the dynamism and emotion that this painting captures: it’s recognisably a seascape, but it strikes me that there’s much more in it to explore. I particularly like the contrast between the chaotic sea and coastline compared to the calmness of the sky. It drew me in.

This is William MacTaggart’s 1974 work, Autumn Leaves. Regular readers will know that my colour vision isn’t great, but I love the warmth of the oranges and reds of this painting. I was drawn to the inspired combination of the autumn scene with sunset, given that autumn feels a bit like the sunset of the year. There’s something peaceful and reflective about this painting.

I also like the prominence of the blue and purple elements which wouldn’t necessarily be expected, and the recognisable building in the back of the picture. It was another picture that I found absorbing.

This is The Valley of the Shadow, Loch Coruisk by Robert Burns. Represented as it is above, this painting doesn’t really move me. In the gallery, it seemed considerably more abstract, the forms of the mountains and the loch being much less clearly discernible. It turns out that it’s actually disappointingly literal.

This is, I think, attributable to something that irritated me throughout this exhibition: the lighting. The gallery seems to have positioned spotlights on each painting—so far, so normal—but they seem to be undiffused. This means that the glare and reflections on canvases makes some works really quite difficult to see: I had to duck and weave to get an impression. I’m not sure if the space has been recently refitted or something, but it’s really not working as well as it could.

Shifting Vistas: 250 Years of Scottish Landscape continues at the City Art Centre until June next year.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

On Edinburgh

One of the strange and wonderful things about living in the North East is that our closest capital city is that of Scotland, not of England. And famously, London is much closer to Paris than to Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

As I sped back from Edinburgh on the East Coast mainline recently, I was pondering this. There’s been stuff in the press about the BBC moving the One O’Clock News to Salford, as it has with Breakfast, to counter accusations of London-centricity.

But it’s poorly understood that London-centricity isn’t really to do with the physical location of the bulletin. It’s to do with a thousand little things. To name just one: next time you see someone from the Royal College of Physicians on television, try to spot if they’re quoted as being from the Royal College of Physicians of London or the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

The former is almost always assumed, and the rare clarifications usually state that RCP London represents physicians in England… yet our physical proximity to Edinburgh means many in the North East choose the Scottish option.

London isn’t the default for everyone, and not even for everyone in England.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, .

Calton Hill

Wendy and I have been to Edinburgh more times than I can remember, but until recently, we’d inexplicably never climbed Calton Hill to see the National Monument, City Observatory, Old Observatory House, et cetera.

It’s worth the short, gentle climb—especially on a sunny day.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Travel, .

31 things I learned in January 2020

1: Alan Bennett had open-heart surgery in Spring 2019 and the news completely passed me by.

2: A paucity of Papal patience provides problematic publicity for a Pontiff preaching peaceful pacifism to pious pilgrims.

3: Norovirus probably causes about two-thirds of care home outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease.

4: Fewer than 20% of schools in Texas teach children about safe sex. Texas is among the States with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Any connection is disputed by conservatives.

5: I’m reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive at the moment, and there’s a line advocating for greater ‘mood literacy’ which I found a rather lovely turn of phrase. It reminded me of this blog post advocating examination of one’s own response to the outside world to better understand one’s mood. Both taught me something about self-examination.

6: One of the room booking systems at work requires me to “invite” a given room to attend a meeting. I’ve now learned through bitter experience that rooms can decline invitations… which felt a little humiliating, even if it does open up a whole new seam of entertaining insults (e.g. “that meeting sounds so pointless that even the room declined the invitation”).

7: Populist ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in politics are commonly discussed and clearly dangerous. I’ve been reminded today by an article on the lack of legislation around in vitro fertilisation research in the USA that the opposite—a complete failure to react because issues are complex and divisive—can be just as dangerous.

8: Merely possessing a placebo analgesic, without even opening it, has been shown to reduce pain intensity.

9: The average age of a BBC One viewer is 61. If one considers that a problem, as the BBC seemigly does, then I suppose one might conclude that removing children’s programmes from the channel was not the right approach.

10: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is only a short walk from the city centre and is a great place for a winter stroll. The uphill walk back to the city centre is a touch more tiring.

11: Over the past decade, the proportion of the UK’s electricity generated from wind and solar power has increased from 2.4% to 20.5%. The proportion from coal has fallen from 31% to 2.9%. (As reported in Positive News, though the specific article isn’t online.)

12: Aspiring comedians often go on ‘introduction to stand up’ courses. I’d never thought about these sorts of courses existing, but of course they do.

13: More than half of Luxembourgers speak four languages. The best-selling newspapers in Luxembourg have articles in two languages. This makes me feel inadequate.

14: In the 1990s, John Major mooted renaming Heathrow airport after Churchill, while Lindsay Hoyle and William Hague fancied naming it after Diana.

15: I have long known the North East is an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in primary care, but hadn’t fully realised until a meeting today that the North East isn’t an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in secondary care.

16: I was surprised to read that a survey suggested that only one in three people on the UK knows the standard VAT rate is 20%, and one in ten knows the basic rate of national insurance is 12%. But then, on reflection, my own surprise surprised me, because I don’t really know how or why I know those figures myself. I’m sure there are plenty of similar figures on which I’d have no idea myself!

17: Since last September, Monday to Friday, the City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country.

18: The developers of Morecambe’s Central Retail Park have “put an extraordinary amount of effort into stylising the car park” including quirky themed artworks, sculpted steel waves and effigies of seabirds diving for fish.

19: In the US, a broadly similar amount is spent on treatment for back pain ($88bn) and treatment for cancer ($115bn).

20: Office for National Statistics Travel to Work Areas are an interesting way of dividing up the country.

21: Civil servants in China cannot ordinarily be dismissed. One wonders what Dominic Cummings makes of that.

22: Over 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds in China are short-sighted. The Communist Party has set targets for reducing that, leading to some slightly strange practices in schools, including compulsory twice-daily eye massages and dressings-down for those whose sight worsens over time.

23: It’s not a public health emergency of international concern.

24: Blinded trials are not always best. I remember having to write an essay or answer an exam question on this topic at some point in the past, but haven’t really thought critically about it in years.

25: The attendance fee for the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos is 27,000CHF (£21,400). I will never complain about medical conference registration fees again!

26: Luxury branded homes—as in, “I live in a Bulgari residence” or “I’m in the Porsche apartments”—are now a thing. Is it possible that this is a global conspiracy to see how far the definition of “gauche” can be pushed?

27: “We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love.”

28: “To err is manatee. A manatee might mistake a swimmer’s long hair for shoal grass and start munching away, oblivious to the attached figure. To err is baby elephant, tripping over her trunk. To err is egg-eater and moonrat and turnstone and spaghetti eel, and whales, who eat sweatpants.

29: Pulmonary tuberculosis can be detected in babies by doing PCR tests on faecal specimens. Sensitivity of the test varies according to the exact methods used, and this is an active area of research.

30: It’s a public health emergency of international concern.

31: The TV series Love Island has an unexpectedly innovative business model which involves selling items seen on the show via the app which viewers download to vote for contestants.

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