Backpacking through Southern Scotland – Part 8

22 04 2007

15-22 April 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

Pollok House

After the expensive tour of the Glasgow School of Art yesterday I suddenly felt that the entire tourist industry was out to make me bankrupt. This industry is given to self-praise to entice you into parting with your money. When you are actually there, you are in for a disappointment. You do not gain much. It may be the greatest thing ever known to man but it is in no way relevant to your life and survival.

The industry is not to be blamed. An exhibit may be worth its praise but if you are unable to see it in the same light as the critics, you leave disappointed. You have to learn to see not by looking but by studying, analyzing and interpreting. You have imagine yourself the painter of the painting on the wall, follow with your eyes each brush stroke to its finest detail, trace the highlights caught between the shadows, identify the elements that balance the composition or anything else that make you like the painting as a whole. Without this act of active seeing, you have not really visited the place. But for common undiscerning tourists, it is enough to have been to a place. It is enough to have taken some snapshots with a digital camera. It is enough to have bought some souvenirs as proof.

Tourists must choose carefully the places they wish to visit. Someone who has never appreciated modern art and sees only a travesty of art in present day artists should never visit Tate Modern. On the other hand, if the same person wishes to enhance his appreciation of art and is open enough to new forms of artistic expressions, then he must visit Tate Modern. He may learn to see things differently. He may realize that art is a living thing that is evolving all the time.

Anyway, my original plan was to visit New Lanark. This would mean that I have to travel out of Glasgow and spend even more to visit this World Heritage Site. My visit to Ironbridge had been expensive. I was sure that this would be just as stretching on the wallet. So instead of visiting New Lanark I chose to come to Pollok House, a National Trust property to which I have free access as a member. Where there is competition, the consumer always has a choice.

A still from the gardens of Pollok House

A still from the gardens of Pollok House

Getting to Pollok House was in itself eventful. I arrived at Hillhead subway this morning to find that the station does not open till 10am! Indeed unbelievable for a major city. When the station finally opened I was told that I could not buy the Roundabout ticket because the counter is closed on Sundays. I bought a ticket for a single trip on the subway. When I entered the subway, a guy hiding his face under a hood spat at me. We had a verbal argument that fortunately did not degenerate into a fist fight. When I finally alighted from a bus near Pollok House, I noticed that a woman had fallen on the pedestrian walkway. Soon, a man pulled up in his car. He called for an ambulance. He was joined by three others who offered assistance. It was not long before the paramedics arrived and soon followed by an ambulance. The woman had drunk a little too much. In Glasgow, we find people staggering out of pubs, fully drunk, even at mid-day. I am sure all those who stopped to help had busy schedules but they cared enough to spare some time. They had nothing to gain. They showed genuine concern. If this had happened in London, I wonder if anyone would have really bothered. If I had previously thought that the English were unassuming in their ways, the Scottish would put them to shame. The English are too cultured that it makes them stiff and unapproachable. The Scottish on the other hand are unassuming and unpretentious. They offer help naturally without attempting to conform to expectations. Their smile is free and friendly. They abide by social etiquettes but they are also spontaneous when they see it fit.

The gardens at Pollok House did not impress me at all. Many beds of flowers add colour to the lawns but none of them created any sense of beauty. One particular bed had a multitude of colours – red, yellow, purple, pink, violet, white. Nothing stood out. There was no harmony and no defined mood, just an uninteresting mass of colours. The parterres were too formal for my taste and I could not appreciate their beauty. The only interesting thing I noticed was a pine hedge. It is common to find garden hedges of box, yew or even beech but this was the only occasion I had seen a pine hedge. It was pretty.

Displeased with the gardens, I visited the house. Pollok House is famous for its collection of Spanish paintings. From the many, the only one that really captured my fascination is “A Lady in a Fur Wrap” by El Greco, 1577-79. The face of the lady is the focus of the picture. A white-furred mantle is drawn over her head, thereby framing her face for maximum effect. Her light complexion is offset by dark eyebrow and a relaxed gaze. It is this gaze that captivates from the start. It is not a serious portrait. It is not stately or aloof. The painting is light and approachable. The lady is not dressed extravagantly. We feel that she is of the social hierarchy to which we all belong. She looks at us at a slight angle with three-quarters of her face. If she were to face us directly or turn even slightly in either direction, perhaps the effect would be lost.

Being a fan of William Blake, it was only natural that I spent a lot of my time looking at his paintings in one of the rooms. The chief of them is a pair composed in uncommon dimensions that nonetheless fit the nature of the portraits – “Adam Naming the Beasts” and “Eve Naming the Birds”. Of the former, the face of Adam is a stylized portrait of Blake himself. Blake is one of those “literary painters” who took religious themes from famous books and interpreted them in line and colour. When he painted, he used tempera rather than oil. This created a warm and mellow feel to his pictures. To some extent the effect produced recalled older religious paintings. This can be observed in these two paintings at Pollok House. But Blake was more than a painter. He was also a poet whose verses were often abstruse and symbolic. He claimed not to compose but to transcribe the voice of spirits, angels and God Himself from immediate dictation. For this visit, it was sufficient for me admire the simple, transparent and naked beauty of these paintings. The colours are natural. The shades are of the earth. Details are many but there is no artificial adornment.

The parterre and its rigid formality

The parterre and its rigid formality

Before I got to these paintings I was waylaid for nearly an hour in the library where El Greco’s lady gazes. For some reason I started studying the spines of books from shelf to shelf. I noted the great variety of this collection which consists of more than 6000 books. There are biographies and autobiographies of not just people but also of towns and counties. Memoirs and writings of great people can be found including the great works of Winston Churchill. There is a great deal of travel writing which are probably fascinating reads as they would have been written in Victorian times when the concept of travel for the common man was still in infancy. Among the arts, painting, printing and engraving are represented. Books on art cover European, Classical and the Oriental. When it comes to painting, there are books on the history of painting, schools of painting and lives of painters. There are books on architecture. Books on castles and churches take their rightful place. The Bible is to be found in many sizes, versions, editions and periods. Three large bookcases are required to store the complete series of the Punch Magazine from 1841-1987. Nature magazine is to be found as well. I noted a book on book bindings. Books on mythology, prehistory, history, gardening, ironwork, monumental brasses, philosophy, operas, coin collecting, decorative windows and many more that make up an eclectic mix of subjects can be found. When it comes to literature, these are books that celebrate the very nature of writing. With such a diverse collection, it is not just probable but almost certain that this is just a collection. No person, even if he or she did have a varied interest in life, would have the time to read so many books in one lifetime. Then I found out about Sir John Stirling Maxwell.

Sir John Maxwell is a person of many interests. His life is an inspiration in that he took initiative in public life. He influenced the urban development of Glasgow. At the same time he was sensitive to the need for conserving the countryside. He was an advisor to the Forestry Commission. At Pollok House, they continue to this day to rear a fold of Highland Cattle. This fold has won many prizes for Glasgow City at local and national agricultural shows. Sir John also did some watercolour paintings which hang in one of the corridors. They span landscapes, portraits and architectural studies. It was also at Pollok House that the first thought seeds were sowed which finally germinated in the formation of the National Trust for Scotland. Indeed, this man’s interest has been varied. I would not be surprised if it is Sir John who expanded the collection of books as well as read many of them.

Lunch at Pollok House

Any chef always has the task of not just cooking something for his customers but also presenting his creation in the best possible manner. The task is not just providing a feast for the palate but also one for the eyes. If cooking is an art form, the artist must also know and understand the synergies that exist across various other art forms, not least of which are the visual forms. He must know how to mix the spices but also know how to arrange the colours on the plate. If he knows how long the fish is to be fried, he must also know where to place the cooked fish in relation to the salad and the slice of lemon. Moreover, such knowledge must be exercised with a unique personal signature. If the dish is traditional then perhaps the display too must be traditional. If the dish is avant-garde then the display must anticipate the taste that is to follow. On the other hand, a traditional dish presented in a novel way may work just as well so long as they complement each other to enhance the dining experience. The challenge for any chef is to strike a balance. An extravagant display may turn out to be a flash in the pan. It may create high expectation. If the dish does not live up to these expectations the taste may turn sour before we are finished with the first mouthful. On the contrary, if the display is poor and haphazard, we may lose out appetite despite being hungry.

I have just finished my lunch at the restaurant at Pollok House. The dining area is set in a high skylit domed ceiling from which a large circular iron ring hangs. This ring holds modern lamps with modern shades. The walls are tiled without design. Shelves lining the walls hold copper pans. Below one such shelf is a wine rack containing a wide selection. The fireplace is clean, silent and empty. Above it, attached to the wall, is an unmoving mechanism for turning the spits that are nowhere to be seen. The oven is cold and its iron doors are closed. A door leads into a modern kitchen. Large windows open the view towards gardens at the back. The door on the opposite wall leads into a long corridor once busy with the hustle and bustle of many servants serving the needs of a large country house. In this Edwardian kitchen I have just finished my lunch.

Lunch was pan-fried sea bream. It was not filling but in every other aspect it has met my approval and praise. The fish was lightly salted and peppered evenly with black pepper. It was fried to a thin crispy layer but underneath it was all soft and tender. It was fried to a delicate colour of brown by which one could see the suppleness of the flesh below. The fish itself was creamy white and boneless. It was served next to a bed of wild rockets decorated on the side with lightly blanched cherry tomatoes. To complete this composition, there lay a group of half-cut boiled potatoes. To these colours of green, red and brown was a touch of yellow in an inviting slice of lemon that said “Squeeze me”.

The Reluctant Traveller

The most difficult thing for the traveller is returning home, to leave the world behind and come back to his little life of old routines and bread-winning chores. Although home is a place of rest, on this backpacking trip to Scotland I have been so relaxed that I hardly feel I need a rest. After being on the road for a week, I feel that my trip has just begun. Only now I have started to sense a rhythm. This rhythm is to arrive and depart, to observe and reflect. I have truly begun to appreciate Scotland not just in its majestic landscapes but in terms of heritage, people and culture as well. When I considered a visit to Scotland, I had thought of walking the entire length of the West Highland Way. It would have been a splendid experience but I wanted something of a greater variety. I am glad that’s what I have been able achieve on this trip.

Because I had a long wait for my bus to Luton, I killed some time with an uninteresting movie at the cinema. I waited out the final hour at the Buchanan bus station. Bus stations, or any point of travel connection for that matter, are wonderful places to observe society in its finest aspect. This finest aspect is simply reality. There are no tourist guidebooks to tell us what to look for or expect. There are no facts or opinions that we are encouraged to verify. There are no predetermined views to narrow our vision. The scenes are laid out before us in real-time, mixing and moving. We are to observe society as it breathes and lives. We are to watch its movements carefully in its little highlights and bold brushstrokes on a changing canvas. We are to notice the cultural nuances of common behaviour that’s in human interaction.

Scene 1

A bus arrives among many others. A girl alights among many others. She makes a phone call. She waits with patience. Her friend arrives. Her immediate response is a smile. Her gladness is in the sweetness of this smile. They welcome each other with an embrace very much like a sculpture that stands in this station. They pick up their bags and leave.

Scene 2

Two teenage girls wander around. They are just passing through this station. They have no bags. They are dressed in black clothes all over. Their trousers are black. Their black shoes with heavy soles have a steel band running along the base. Their black T-shirts are printed with skulls on fire. Their mascara is so thick that their childish eyes appear girdled with the paint of the Devil. Their pale complexions only accentuate such a countenance. Belts and chains hang loosely from their waists and dangle to their knees. Their noses are pierced and so are their lower lips. They wear steel rings without sparing a single finger. They stop at the same sculpture to take a picture.

Scene 3

A child and his father wait for their bus to London. The child is perhaps only five years of age. He is clearly excited at what appears to be his first overnight bus journey. He is carrying his little red backpack and keen to see his bus arrive. He is already wearing an inflated neck-rest but sleep is not on his mind. The pair make pleasant talk and the excitement mounts with every passing minute.

Scene 4

It is late on a Sunday night but it is still a working hour for the staff at the station. One of them checks her list. She takes note of the times when buses arrive and depart. She walks from bus to bus and chats with the drivers. The drivers flirt with her but it is all done in good spirit and comradeship. As colleagues they work together in good co-operation. They appear to be happy in their jobs. My bus arrives. I wait in the queue. My ticket is checked and ticked. I board the bus and take leave of Scotland. This journey must be made though I would love to continue discovering more of Scotland. I’m afraid, if I stay here any longer, it will become a habit for me to say “aye” instead of “yes”.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

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