End of January, 2009

BURNS’ DAY—TUTORIALS—GETTING LOST—MUSEUMS

Sunday the 25th of January was Robbie Burns’ Day. There were mild festivities around the Edinburgh celebrating this first of the city’s many literary luminaries. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that Edinburgh is a city that has been home to a fine crop of literary figures, including Burns himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, philosopher David Hume, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and more recently, J.K. Rowling.

To celebrate, Nick and I ascended to the top of Arthur’s Seat and looked out over the city. It took us a little under an hour to walk to Holyrood Park and ascend the craggy lump that dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Innumerable muddy paths snake up the steep sides, and Nick always seemed to choose the steepest, saying that they would be the most direct. When we made it to the top, I was quite tired out from the persistent steepness. The sun nearly blinded us from the southwest, and the wind made me glad that I was wearing a hat and gloves.

Judging from the rather large number of people at the summit, we weren’t the only ones who had the brilliant (and slightly crazy) idea of ascending Arthur’s seat. There were people of all walking ages—youngsters in their first few years, and elderly people who had ascended the less-steep ways with the aid of canes.

The views were exceedingly fine in all directions. Greater Edinburgh surrounds the Park entirely, and so there are views to be had in every direction from the summit. Looking west (and a bit into the sun), Edinburgh was spread out before us, the sun glinting off countless windows. From this height, it becomes apparent how high above the rest of town the castle is; the ramp-like elevated Royal Mile notwithstanding. The fourteen-story David Hume Tower, in the center of the campus of the University is still a bit shorter than the considerably older castle on its crag. Looking more to the north, the Firth of Forth dominates the view, a ribbon of blue separating the grey-brown of Edinburgh from the brown-green of Dunfermline, Aberdour, Kirkcaldy, and the rest of the northern shore. Heading east the Forth widens, and takes up much of the view, with the beaches of Portobello, Musselburgh, Cokenzie and Port Seton, and Prestonpans (I did not make these names up) fading into the distance. To the south, the city extends to the edge of the many hills that separate it from England.

We lingered a while on the summit, then returned down the other side, which happened to be the south side. It was sunny and also quite windy coming down. As can be expected, we were down in no time at all.

 

On Monday I had my first Tutorial for any of my classes. These tutorials differ from lectures at the University of Edinbugh in several important ways.

1) The class size of tutorials is much smaller: my “Art, History, and Power” class has class list of about 60 people. My tutorial, conducted on the 13th floor of David Hume Tower, has eight.

2) The tutorial is not necessarily taught by a lecturer in the course: often the tutorials will be taught by graduate students getting their doctorate, or in some cases (if you are lucky) by professors who may or may not be associated with the class.

3) Rather than a lecture, the Tutorial is conducted as a discussion-based class. Because of the small class size and discussion, the classes bear a lot of similarity with Hampshire classes.

4) The tutorial is where almost all of your homework or reading is due.

 


I went on another long and noteworthy walk on Thursday afternoon. This particular walk was to the north, yet again, but my goal this time was to fill in much of the area between Dean and the Leith Walk, and try and get a feeling for the character of this stretch of the city. My walk took me on a meandering route through residential communities, along shopping streets, and past cricket pitches.

It was while I was on this walk that I ruminated on the idea of what it means to get lost while traveling—for you see, I have not yet been lost in Edinburgh. There is a definite difference between seeing things for the first time—being places you have never been—and being lost. As I passed through scenes entirely new to me, I knew that the place did not match with any in my experience, but I knew roughly where I was, and I knew how this place related to where I had come from and where I was going.

The state of being lost in part results from physical factors: the place may be unfamiliar or prohibit you from knowing the way back. Familiar landmarks may be obscured, moved, or destroyed. The people of the place may seem unfamiliar. At the same time, being lost is a mental state—one in which doubt outweighs and overbalances your confidence in your impression of where you are. This may be compounded by a feeling of “not belonging” in a certain place or a language barrier. You may also lack confidence in your ability to retrace your steps and return to your starting spot.

It could also be argued that one is only lost when thwarted in an attempt to reach a destination, but I find this less than satisfactory: sometimes when you have no destination in mind, you do not wish to become lost. It may be Murphey’s Law that you get lost when you are trying to get to a destination, or that you are more likely to get lost when you have a destination, but I don’t think a destination is a prerequisite for getting lost. I will say this, though: having a destination sure makes getting lost a lot more frustrating.

On this particular walk, the physical world was unfamiliar—I had never been there, and while I have quite a good memory turns and routes, I had made so many turnings that I couldn’t be guaranteed of an exact return. I was not lost, though, because I had complete confidence in my ability to find my way home. Physically, I did not know where I was, but mentally I knew what I was about and up to.

Finding my way back to the College Wynd is made considerably easier by the existence of the castle. If I can see the castle, I can point myself towards it and walk towards it until I get somewhere familiar. If I don’t choose to make a beeline for the old town, then I can at least use the castle as a reference check—I can say to myself “I’ve gone farther south than I intended, the castle is directly to my left” or “I’m exactly where I thought I would be.”

This particular walk took me well beyond the water of Leith, and as far north as the Edinburgh Botanical gardens, which I intend to visit when they are under full effect of springtime.

 

After a Friday largely consumed with recuperation and relaxation, Saturday seemed quite busy. In the late morning I accompanied Nick while he looked for climbing gear. Rose Street lies between Princes Street and Queens Street in New town. Originally an access to the backsides of the large Queens and Princes Street townhouses, Rose Street is now mainly a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops selling all sorts of wares. On this particularly beautiful day, with the sun shining and the weather not too chilly, there were many people out shopping and otherwise enjoying the commercial side of Edinburgh. We were successful in our trip. Well Nick was, at least. I had wanted to get soap, but I forgot about it. I’ll get it one of these days, though.

After a brief spell in my room, it was back out into the city, bound for the same galleries of Modern Art I had not entered the previous week. This time I was in the company of my friend Abby, who had been a key member of our walk along the canal. We went the scenic way, descending from Queen’s street to walk through the village of Dean by way of the path beside the water of Leith. This path led us directly to the first of the two galleries, The Dean Gallery. We entered. This gallery contained works by four Scottish artists and the national collection of Surrealist and Dadaist art.

While these movements have always interested me, they are not my favourites, and Abby and I soon tired of this gallery and crossed the road to the Gallery of Modern Art. One painting did stand out in my memory, though, a surrealist painting of a rocky coastline with three spectral shapes outlined in cloudy white overhead: A nude female torso, a tuba, and a ladder-back chair. The painting was entitled Threatening Weather.

The Gallery of Modern Art really only has two floors worth of gallery space. Almost the entire ground floor was occupied by an installation of work by Scottish-born contemporary artist Charles Avery entitled The Islanders: An Introduction, which contained photographs, paintings, drawings and (perhaps most disturbingly) taxidermy. The exhibition told the story of a traveller who visits a strange island inhabited by some rather normal people and some rather strange animals. The story is told in the form of the notes, which are written in the same style as many 19th Century explorers’ accounts. I found them reminiscent of Dinotopia and the 99 Balloons, both stories I read in my childhood.

For example, one of the notes told the story of Henderson’s Eggs, which are eggs pickled in Gin and are nauseatingly disgusting but terribly addictive. After three eggs, the eater is hooked, and cannot lose his or her addiction no matter how hard she or he tries. The only cure is to leave the island, whereupon the eggs become putrid and the addiction is broken.

I think the show was somewhat the same. Abby and I were simultaneously disgusted by some of what we saw in the show (particularly some of the taxidermy), and also enthralled. It reeled us in to the world. We didn’t take the time to read all the notes, but I’m considering going back in the next two weeks while the show is still on so that I can try to understand the story better. You can see some of his work here.

On the Second floor, we saw the portion of the permanent collection that was currently on display. It featured mainly Scottish artists, but also had works by some notables, including one work each by Kazimir Malevich, László Moholy-Nagy, Oscar Kokoshka, Lyonel Feininger, Piet Mondriann, Pablo Picasso, and Henry Moore. The collection was small, but commendable considering that the collection is not that old—the earliest acquisitions were from the 1970s.

 

 

I’d like to say “thanks” to all who have been watching this site. I think that for the moment it will update on a weekly basis, probably on Saturday evenings (like tonight), unless something of particular interest happens. Should this happen, I will post a note stating that I will be updating more than once weekly. Thanks again for checking by!

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2 Responses to “End of January, 2009”

  1. Yi Says:

    those Tutorials sound *exactly* like my school’s “discussions sections.”

    I looked at that website with the art. The llamadogchicken thing was quite strange.

  2. Lydia Says:

    In your ongoing work, Philosophy of the “Lost,” you may wish to explore the effect of companions’ opinions on the designation “lost.” Perhaps the relative musings on ramblings are best suited to the individual. A couple times I’ve presented such arguments against the term and met with vehement contradiction from others traveling with me…
    Strangely, I ran across mention of the taxidermy you saw, before you typed about it. I’m writing a story that required a dive into online taxidermy community- not for the faint of heart- and there were quite a few mentions of the Edinburg exhibit.


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