Garden · Photography · Scotland

Friday photo: redwood

The bark of a giant redwood tree is so spongy and robust that you can punch it without damaging either yourself or the tree, and its incredible thickness makes the tree essentially fireproof. Redwoods can live for hundreds, even occasionally thousands, of years, withstanding numerous fires that would burn and shrivel other trees. The tallest known tree in the world is a giant redwood, named Hyperion, located in California. In 2006 its height was accurately measured as 379.1 feet, but it’s still growing. It’s estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old. The redwood in my picture isn’t anything like as tall as Hyperion, but it’s still an impressive specimen. I looked up at it in awe yesterday during a visit to Dawyck Botanic Garden in the Scottish Borders.

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Giant redwood at Dawyck Botanic Garden, near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. 
Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Lion” by Saroo Brierley

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young Indian boy who got lost after boarding a train on his own when he was only five years old. He ended up in Calcutta (Kolkata, as it now is), hundreds of miles from home, with no idea of how to get back to his family again.

For weeks he lived in and around the train station in Calcutta, foraging for food, sleeping on the streets wherever he could find shelter, and trying to find a way to get back home. He wasn’t sure of the name of his home town, and only had the word ‘Ginestlay’ to offer to anyone who tried to help him. This meant nothing to any of the people he spoke to, and the only other place name he had a vague recollection of was a common-sounding name that could have been anywhere in India.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

“Lion” by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose (2013)

During the course of his time wandering around Calcutta, the young Saroo met people who helped him as well as those who meant him harm. He quickly learned to question people’s motives and developed the ability to judge whether or not he could trust them.

One day, a teenage boy befriended him on the street and took him home with him. The house offered a place of safety and Saroo stayed there for several days. The teenager then took Saroo to the police station. This frightened Saroo, but he trusted his friend enough to allow the police to take responsibility for him. They asked him lots of questions, but when they were unable to discover where he had come from, they took him to a children’s home full of hundreds of other lost or abandoned children.

Although the home gave him shelter and food to eat, it was over-crowded and Saroo often had to share a bed or sleep on the floor. He was bullied by older boys and disturbed by the distressing behaviour of some of the other children. After a month of living in the home he was handed over to an orphanage. The orphanage contained fewer children, most of whom were of a similar age to Saroo, and he felt much happier there.

Despite their best efforts to try and locate Saroo’s family, the people at the orphanage ran up against a brick wall. The best they could do, they told him, was to find him another family to live with. A few weeks later, a willing couple was identified. They were Australian and lived in Tasmania. He was shown photographs of the house he would live in, and the car his new family owned, realities that seemed unbelievable to him. With little idea of what his future held, he agreed to go to Tasmania.

At Melbourne Airport he met his new parents for the first time. He was shy and didn’t speak English, and they didn’t speak Hindi. It must have been very unsettling to be in a strange country, about to start a new life with complete strangers, but his ability to judge character no doubt helped him at this point. From the first time he saw them, he knew he could trust his new parents and immediately felt safe in their care.

It would be 25 years before he would stand on Indian soil again, as a 30-year-old Australian citizen attempting to find his birth mother. The story of how he traced his home town – using Google Earth to look for the few landmarks he could remember from his youth – is astonishing in its own right. I found his utter determination never to give up quite awe-inspiring.

His entire story is remarkable and I’m not surprised it’s now been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film, but it received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTA awards.

Garden · Photography · Scotland

Friday photo: piano bench

Someone recently gave my sister an old piano. It wasn’t in great condition, so she thought she might break it up and use the wood for something. Then she had the idea of turning it into a bench seat for her garden. She lives in a rural area and the local taxi driver has started pointing it out to visitors when he drives them past her house.

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Bench seat made out of an old piano. I’ve sat on it and it’s remarkably comfortable.
Perthshire · Photography · Scotland · UK

Friday photo: Glenshee

The red car in the middle of this photograph is driving north on the A93 road, through Glenshee in Perthshire. After winding round the mountain in the middle of the picture, the road has a long, steep climb up to the Glenshee ski centre. At that point, it is the highest public road in the UK, at 670 metres (2199 feet) above sea level. It often gets blocked by snow in the winter, but at this time of year it makes for a lovely drive.

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A red car makes its way north along the A93 through Glenshee in Perthshire.
Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The body on the beach” by Simon Brett

This is the first novel in Simon Brett’s series featuring Carole and Jude, neighbours in the fictional English village of Fethering.

I hadn’t read this book before, but having got to know the central characters from later stories I was interested to find out how they first met.

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“The body on the beach” by Simon Brett (2000)

While walking her dog, Gulliver, early one morning, Carole comes across the dead body of a middle-aged man lying on the beach. While Carole’s looking at the body, Gulliver runs off into the sea and comes out soaked in sea water and smelling of something unsavoury. When she gets home, keen to prioritise giving the dog a bath, Carole does that before attending to anything else. It’s only once Gulliver is clean and snoozing in the kitchen that Carole gets round to phoning the police.

While she’s waiting for the police to come and interview her, Carole notices her new neighbour beating the dust out of a rug in her front garden. Shocked that someone should carry out such a domestic chore at the front of the house, Carole makes negative assumptions about her new neighbour. Taking a brief rest from her beating, Jude turns and sees Carole looking out of the window. Carole is horrified by to have been caught watching but feels compelled to go out and introduce herself.

After a short chat that leaves Carole frustratingly bereft of answers to the many questions she has about Jude, the police call round and Carole turns her attention to telling them about her find on the beach. The police immediately rub her up the wrong way by appearing to doubt her tale. Carole prides herself on being eminently sensible and reliable and to have the police question her truthfulness is a dreadful slight. At the end of the interview they tell her that they went to the beach before calling in to see her, following her clear instructions about where she had seen the body. There was, they said, only one problem with her version of events: there was no dead body on the beach.

Later in the day, still upset about not being believed by the police, Carole opens her front door to a rough-looking woman who wants to know if she, Carole, found a body on the beach that morning. Curious to know who this woman might be, Carole invites her in. The woman, who seems a bit hysterical, demands to know if Carole saw anyone move the body. Carole does her best to stay calm, but when the woman pulls a gun out of her jacket pocket and starts raving at her, she concludes the woman is far from sane. She tells the woman she’s going to phone the police, but the woman threatens to shoot her if she does. Carole is wondering what to do when she’s saved by the doorbell.

When she opens the door she finds her new neighbour, Jude, standing there. Needing a break from unpacking, Jude has called round round to see if Carole fancies going for a drink at the local pub. While Carole’s busy at the front door the gun-toting woman disappears out of the back door, leaving Carole perplexed and needing very much to get things off her chest. She goes to the pub with Jude and, uncharacteristically, unburdens herself. Her neighbour proves to be a good listener and, unlike the police, she believes Carole’s tale.

While reading later books in the Fethering series, I had grown curious about how Carole and Jude had first got together to solve crimes, and why it was that they took things into their own hands rather than reporting things to the police. ‘The body on the beach’ answered my questions, and I very much enjoyed this story. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this book 17/20.

Photography · Scotland

Friday photo: Aberdour beach

There are two beaches in the Fife village of Aberdour, separated by a headland. The larger of the two, and very popular in the summer, is called the Silver Sands. A quiet road leads down to the smaller, and much less busy, Black Sands (whose sands are, in fact, white). This year, Black Sands beach won a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award, and last year the nearby toilets were winners in the National Loo of the Year Awards.

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Quiet road leading to the Black Sands of Aberdour, Fife, Scotland.
Book review · Non-fiction · Sport

Book review: “Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

Having watched Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon tournaments for many years now, I was intrigued to learn more about what made him the champion he’s become.

This book gave me the insight I was hoping for, and was so well written and engaging I found it hard to put down.

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“Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin (2011)

Born in 1986 on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Nadal was coached from a young age by his uncle Toni. A gifted player himself, Toni had dreamed of being a big tennis star one day. Although undoubtedly talented, he discovered he lacked the strength and determination required to reach the very top. Instead, he threw himself into coaching youngsters in Mallorca, including his nephew, Rafa.

In the book, Toni recollects his early advice to the four-year-old Rafa: “First, hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it in.” Rafa, it seems, was an obedient and hard-working child even at that young age. His parents drummed into him the importance of having respect for others, particularly his elders, and instructed him to make a point of congratulating his opponents whenever they beat him at anything. Along with his Uncle Toni, they instilled in him the idea that however successful he might become, it was of paramount importance that he remain humble and keep his feet on the ground. Seen from the outside, the Nadal family seems unusually close and tight-knit. It is, apparently, the Mallorcan way, and it’s very clear from the book that Rafa highly values his family ties.

One of the things that has struck me about the tennis world is how often many of the top players change their coaches. It’s the opposite of how Rafa goes about his business. He has had the same team around him for years, and his Uncle Toni has coached him through 15 Grand Slam titles, making him the most successful tennis coach in history. (Things have in fact changed this year, six years after the book was published, with Toni retiring from Rafa’s coaching team; he now focuses on the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy, coaching upcoming youngsters.)

The book is written in an interesting and unusual style, with every second chapter being told from the point of view of Rafa’s co-author, John Carlin, while the other chapters are written in Nadal’s own words. I enjoyed this chopping and changing between voices, because it allowed Carlin to make his own comments on Nadal and include quotes from the people who know him best, as well as giving Rafa the chance to tell his story in his own way. The majority of the chapters written in Rafa’s voice describe career-defining matches and the way he felt when he played them. Having watched one or two of these matches, most memorably the Wimbledon final he played against Roger Federer in 2008, it was fascinating to learn what Rafa was thinking and feeling during those critical moments.

I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I wasn’t anticipating such a rewarding read. It’s clear from the statistics that Rafael Nadal is an outstanding champion (only Roger Federer has won more men’s Grand Slam singles titles), but this book explains how he got to be so good. As he repeatedly says himself, his success would have been impossible without his incredibly supportive family and the close friends and advisers that make up Team Rafa.

As of now, Rafeal Nadal is 31 years old (four years younger than Roger Federer). Given that he won a record-breaking 10th French Open this year, you have to wonder what else he has in store. He currently holds 15 Grand Slam titles, to Federer’s 19. If Rafa stays fit and well over the next few years there’s surely every chance he could match, or even surpass, the great Federer’s amazing record.