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Storytelling all around us

Living in Edinburgh in August, you get a sense of the human need to create. With festivals covering jazz, dance, film, books, theatre, photography, opera and any number of combinations of these individual elements, there is more than just something for everyone. And within the now huge programme for the Fringe events there will be a nice example of a bell curve of quality. But the fact that so many people want to participate – and do so – even if only one or two people end up coming to their performance is testament to a desire to express themselves.

Fringe 2     Fringe 1

I was struck this weekend by the breadth of activities which happen all around us. On Saturday, LoLo and I went on the train to North Berwick, a seaside town south of Edinburgh. The tickets were free, a consequence of a very delayed train last year when I was travelling up to a town north of Aberdeen and ended up arriving there long after all the shops were closed, having spent a cold hour on Aberdeen station en route. We had no particular plan for what to do in North Berwick other than eating fish and chips, but then saw a sign for the North Berwick Highland Games. The immediate reaction was that there would be highland dancing, so we decided to go along and experience what would, for both of us, be our first Highland Games. Ironically in the Lowlands. The dancing was certainly the highlight for LoLo.


For me, it was shared between watching caber tossing and seeing a pipe band whose kilts were all what for me is “McHaffie tartan”, which is really a version of Grant tartan (yes, we are Grants on one side of the family, we can legitimately wear it. I can provide evidence if necessary). This tartan had until Saturday been so obscure that I had never seen it other than on a McHaffie, and that in itself was only because it was the one which we chose for our wedding many years ago and everyone else kindly adopted it. It has the advantage of the family photos looking better. I kept taking pictures of these random men in kilts in what would have appeared to have been me in full tourist mode.



Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long enough to watch them play, but hearing the various pipe bands practicing around the grounds was impressive enough, even if getting too close made me worry for our long-term hearing.

The reason we had to leave was because LoLo had a ticket for Sylvie Guillem. No, I confess I hadn’t heard of her beforehand either. But within the dance world, she is one its superstars. For example, she joined the Paris Opera Ballet aged 16 and was picked out even in that illustrious company by Rudolf Nureyev. Now 50 years old, this performance in the Festival was part of a final tour programme, and there was no question of LoLo not seeing it. Although I keep referring to it as ballet, it was in fact contemporary dance, an entirely different experience and form of dance expression. And of course the verdict was that there were parts which LoLo enjoyed more than others (as I understand it, if Sylvie was in the piece, it was amazing, if not, it was less so).


I spent the time in an upstairs corner of Starbucks, nursing a huge hot chocolate and reading a book while listening to music. And reflecting that these two, as well as dance and sporting competitions, were more forms of human expression which go back millennia. The technology of how we access and experience them might have changed somewhat over the years with iPods and e-readers now joining the ranks of the more traditional media, but the demand for new “content”, for more storytelling has only increased. And storytelling, through whatever medium, seems to be something which has stayed with us through our evolutionary history, providing us with a way to understand our world, our history, and ourselves. When it all comes together in a few weeks of festivals, the whole of Edinburgh seems to come alive. And walking down the Royal Mile, the whole world appears to have congregated in our little city.

Cheap, cheerful and fun

Last week I mentioned writing with pen and paper, the way it was done for longer than word processors and computers have even existed. Not that anything would ever get published without technology, but there’s a lot to be said for slowing things down and thinking before committing words to paper.

So when it came to our summer holiday, I found myself thinking along similar lines about what camera to bring. There is not a scenario where I go somewhere without a camera of some description, even if it’s just the one in my phone, which has done me more than proud in the past when I suddenly saw something I had to take a picture of. This time, there’s no particular event that requires a particular type of camera, and I’m long since through with the tourist photos of Berlin. So what I wanted needed to be different. And feel different. Oh yes, and not cost much if I wanted to try something else out, mainly because I just want to be able to throw it in a bag and not worry about it, but also because I don’t want to be worrying about someone trying to steal it. So indestructible and small and light and cheap.

Right, that ruled out anything made since I was born then.

Which was just fine with me, because I wanted it to be a film camera, and I’m limited to black and white this time – I have more than enough colour photos of Berlin.

Hello, eBay (please tell me you see the irony of using an internet giant to find something pre-technology).

The answer in the end was really simple.




A forty year old Olympus with manual focus – just the job. But it also has automatic exposure setting, which should please the rest of the family as I don’t have to mess around with measuring the light all the time. Or guess it, which is a fun exercise.

And for the photo geeks – an f1.7 lens, how good is that?

£80. That was it. About as much as a couple of filters for a Leica.

Plus film is cheap in Berlin (what, you thought I hadn’t checked?) – about a quarter cheaper than the best I can get in the UK. So I don’t even have to take loads of film with me. It turns out Berlin is quite the place for photography. Not sure how I missed that before.

About week after it arrived, I had my first roll of film through it, answering the first question – it’s fun to use. And it just felt right, everything where it should be – and where it used to be when I was first messing around with cameras.

And I managed to get some shots I was pretty happy with. My hit rate was certainly better than I was expecting.


Yes, it’s hanging off the side of a building.




The side of Edinburgh you don’t see on postcards.

Several thousand words (sort of)

If a picture tells a thousand words, this is going to be a long blog today. I thought it was time for an update on the photography project, which I’ve now accepted is something which is currently being fitted into the odd minute and random walk rather than having dedicated time set aside for it. If you remember, the point is to use an old camera (in my case, it’s about 50 years old), one lens and one type of (black and white) film. And I do the developing and scanning myself. Film three was developed this morning. I’ve already learned from experience that you never touch the negatives, they take longer to dry than you think they should, and I’m sticking with my original expectation that I will be happy if two or three photos turn out anywhere close to how I saw the picture in my head. Black and white is a different experience from colour photography. I have a lot to learn.

Apart from taking pictures of the family, it appears there are a few things my eyes seem to be drawn to. One is juxtaposition. So I liked the graffiti next to the tattoo parlour – kind of like a tattoo on the building:

Film 3 028

Edinburgh is a beautiful city. There are an awful lot of photos out there of the stunning parts – the architecture, the history of the city. And yet within a couple of hundred metres of the modern office blocks, the historical buildings, the tourist traps, there are derelict buildings and an entirely different view of Edinburgh. For some reason, that’s what I see when I have camera with me:

Film 3 026

Film 3 017

And finally, I’m trying to see the strong black and white shapes and patterns (even though they show up every speck of dust on the negative or scanner)Film 3 015:

Film 3 013

I came across a wonderful photography book recently after we were out for breakfast on a Saturday, which turned out to be more of a lunch judging by the time we got there. The girls wanted to pop into some of the charity shops, and after Camille prompted me about ten times, I eventually looked at the very large book called “Chromo” which was on the top of the bookshelves, wedged between gardening books. It turned out to be a huge number of photos all on the theme of colour, with sections devoted to one colour, and of course at a price nowhere close to the original one, even though it was in perfect condition. I hadn’t seen photos presented in that way before and since then, as well as looking for black and white shots, I’ve also been seeing concentrated colours more frequently. So here are a few first attempts at simplifying an image to focus on a dominant colour: