Photographing Trees

I spent a happy day recently at Westonbirt arboretum photographing the trees in their autumn colours – they are stunning at the moment.

I suppose it must be a sign that I am getting old that I can be satisfied with such a simple activity. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing though.
It is such a commonplace these days that being young is good, and old is bad. But the colours of autumn leaves are proof that decline and death can also produce something beautiful.

All images copyright © Fiona Coulter 2012

Being Diagnosed With Cancer

This July I was diagnosed with cancer.

My immediate reaction I have to say was complete panic. I assumed that I was going to die, something that was reinforced by the fact that two years ago my sister Laura did die of cancer. Watching her go through that was terribly hard, and facing up to the fact that it might be my fate was immensely difficult.

The I realised that actually there is a good chance that I may not die of this disease at all. My cancer seems to be much less advanced than hers, and is certainly treatable. The unexpected thing once I got over the shock is that life just goes on. At the moment I am being treated with a hormone treatment that seems to be remarkably effective at shrinking my tumour. I don’t actually feel ill at all.

Eventually of course I will need surgery and other treatment to actually remove the rest of the tumour, something I am not looking forward to – I don’t suppose anyone does.

One of the hardest things for me has been actually telling my friends that I have cancer. Does one just announce it, like other life events such as new jobs, weddings etc? It would just seem too wierd. Plus at the time I simply could not bear the inevitable sympathy.

So instead I have adopted the strategy of just telling people if they ask how I am doing, plus those people I have to tell for practical reasons. Now I am putting it in this blog post partly as a way of avoiding having to tell more people directly.

Perhaps there should be a special card for the occasion, a cancer card, saying something like ‘I have cancer. Please don’t feel sorry for me. But feel free to ask any questions’.

It is true that having cancer these days is not a death sentence. But don’t let anyone tell you it is not a big deal. I have been used to measuring my future in decades, now I am forced to face up to the possibility that it may be measured in years or even months. That is a big thing.

Suddenly Autumn is Here

A couple of weeks ago when I was driving back to Bath from Berwick-upon-Tweed it still seemed to be summer.

Sitting in an open air cafe with my Dad we noticed these little swallows sitting in a line above us. They were clearly fledglings, because a parent was feeding them.

This was around September 14th. That seems very late in the year, I guess the lateness is the result of the bad weather earlier this year.

Now suddenly autumn is here. Leaves on the tree outside my window are turning brown. There is a distinct chill in the air.

Another year is on its way out. I hate that. Each year there is a point around usually around mid April when I realise that another winter is past, warm weather is on its way, and I am filled with optimism about what the summer will bring. I really felt good about life earlier this year.

Then suddenly it is autumn again. Nothing much has been achieved and another year is on its way out. This time it just rained rained rained. Plus I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of months ago, which kind of put a dampener on any sense of optimism I might have been feeling.

Truly, if you want to give the universe a good laugh, just tell it your plans.

Birdsong in an English Woodland

I recorded this a couple of months ago during a trip to Westonbirt arboretum. There were an astonishing (to me anyway) variety of birds tweeting merrily away. I can recognise a chiff-chaff, also you can hear a woodpecker knocking – not sure what the others are though.

The only annoying thing was a light aircraft that seemed to be constantly flying around overhead – those things cause a noise that is extremely irritating and seemed to fill the sky at times. Still apart from the twerp in the plane it was a wonderful day out.

My New Camera

I’ve treated myself to a new digital SLR camera, a Canon EOS 60D. It was expensive enough that it took me some time to work myself up to actually buying it. I am not good at spending money (lack of practise? or just inherent stinginess?).

I have to say that I already love it.

Back in the days before digital photography I used to own a Canon AE 1 (in fact I have still got it), in some ways it seems quite similar. The thing about Canon is that they do make good lenses, one of the most important things in determining the quality of the picture you get.

I am not a very technical photographer, I mainly just enjoy looking at things and taking a picture if I think they look interesting. I did at one time learn about f stops and that kind of thing, but I have forgotten most of it now. I first became interested in photography when I bought a very old (probably 1950s) camera from a market stall for £10. It had no exposure meter, and you could not actually tell from the viewfinder whether or not it was in focus. I had to estimate the distance to the subject, and then guess the light level and set the f-stop. Surprisingly I became quite good at it, the pictures often came out. The thing that made all this hassle worthwhile is that it had a beautiful lens, the results could be lovely.

Unfortunately in a fit of generosity I gave the camera away a few years ago, something that I regret to this day. I only hope that the person I gave it to appreciates it.

Anyway here are a few pictures with my new camera. Sadly just after I bought it I was ill for a while, then the weather has been miserable since, so I have not had much opportunity to use it, but here are a few.


The last one went a bit wrong, but I quite like the result anyway.



Open College of the Arts


For the past two years I have been studying a course in advanced music composition at the Open College of the Arts. I want to strongly recommend the OCA to anyone who wants to study music (or the other arts) in a creative way.

For my course I composed an extended piece of music, a fantasy for the orchestra based on three Somerset folk songs. The thing that the OCA gives, which is invaluable, is feedback about the work from a practising composer. In my case my tutor was the composer Patric Standford. His critique was always exactly to the point, proving (if it were needed) that a few well chosen words from someone who really knows what they are doing are worth far more than any amount of ill-informed opinion.

You can hear the piece here:

Folk Song Fantasia

I attended an OCA music composition workshop in Barnsely on 12th November. It was fascinating to finally meet the other music students. We were a very mixed bunch, but I think all very creative and serious composers – I was very impressed by the quality of the compositions, all were good, and a couple were really beautiful.

Flautist Carla Rees gave us a very interesting tour of the modern techniques of flute writing. Some of them I don’t really see the point of I have to say, but I do really like the concept of a quarter tone flute, and may well try tackling a composition for it in the future. I do love the sound of quarter tones, they are commonly used in folk music around the world, also in blues, as ‘blue notes’. I was very interested in Irish music for many years, and I think quarter tones are sometimes used there, often by older more traditional players, perhaps unconsciously. So quarter tones are not necessarily alien.

Travelling up to Barnsley and back was exhausting, but worth the effort. I hope that the OCA will do something similar in future, and I will be able to attend.





Remembering Laura Bruni

Today is the first anniversary of the death of my sister Laura Bruni. She is still much missed.

You can read her obituary in the Guardian here:

It is still very hard to come to terms with. Looking at the great woman she became it is clear that it was a sad loss to the Labour Party and to us all.


On a more personal level the loss is still raw. She was my little sister, and I wanted to take care of her and in the end I could not. The only thing I could do was be with her when she died.

She was motivated in her political career by a desire to help others and to be of public service. Those who knew her will remember her as a woman of personal integrity with a strong sense of social justice.

I will remember her as my beloved sister.


Autumn has been particularly beautiful this year.

Red Leaves of Autumn

Red Leaves of Autumn

A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Westonbirt Arboretum and took some photographs of the trees. Many of the trees were still green, some had turned a rich red, others were in the process of turning. Spectacular!

I suppose it should be a depressing season – winter is just a few weeks away, another year will be over. I will be a year older and will have accomplished little with my life, and will have that bit less of it left.

Yet I also find that first slight hint of a chill in the air invigorating. Before the really bad weather sets in,  this time of year often produces days of astonishing beauty. The light is a rich golden glow rather than the harsh glare of summer.

Absorbing Historical Mystery

I first discovered the work of the author C.J. Sansom about a year ago. I was given one of his books (Revelation), and was about half-way through it when I realised that I really had to read all the others in the series. At my age it is really quite exciting to discover a new favourite author.

There are so far five books in the Shardlake series of novels, in order they are: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone. They cover the experiences of lawyer Matthew Shardlake in solving a series of murder cases, set against the background of the corrupt politics of the reign of Henry VIII.

They are very far from being average, run-of-the-mill crime fiction (even average, run-of-the-mill historical crime fiction). There are two main features that distinguish these books for me.

Firstly the character of Shardlake himself is immensely sympathetic. As a character he is flawed and vulnerable, yet is a man in possession an unerring moral compass, often to his own detriment. He has a gift for making powerful enemies (and a few friends).

Secondly, C.J. Sansom succeeds in painting a compelling portrait of life in Tudor England, and corrupt Tudor politics in particular. The intimate detail of everyday life as well the big picture seems convincingly portrayed. It feels like a real world inhabited by real people.

Added to which, each novel delivers a satisfying murder mystery. There are real clues in the text, and you can play the game of guessing the murderer if that is your thing. The eventual solution does actually make sense.

The first novel in the series (Dissolution), is set after the execution of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn and, as its title suggests, deals with the issue of the dissolution of the monasteries. The cynical land-grabbing which ensued among the rich and powerful remains a theme throughout the series.

Real historical events are woven throughout the series, so Dark Fire covers the fall of from power of Thomas Cromwell, Sovereign deals with the collapse of Henry’s marriage to Catherine Howard, Revelation is set at the time of his marriage to Catherine Parr. The title is taken from the biblical Book of Revelation, and concerns a serial killer inspired by that work.

The final book (Heartstone) is set at the time of the sinking of the Mary Rose, so very near the end of Henry’s reign. If there is another in the series – and I am very much hoping there will be – it will presumably be set after his death.

If you are intending to read these books it probably is best to start at the beginning of the series (though admittedly I did not)


No To Sky

I’m really disgusted by the BBC’s decision to give up half their coverage of formula one in favour of Sky.

Even if I could afford to pay to watch the sport on Sky, I wouldn’t want to pay money to any company owned by Rupert Murdoch, so I will only be able to see half the races next year. That saddens me.

Formula One is something that the BBC does really well, they deservedly won a BAFTA for the coverage of the race in Abu Dhabi last year, in which Sebastian Vettel became World Champion. There are rare occasions when I think that a sport can achieve the status of art, and I think that was one of these. It was not the most exciting of races, but there was something really beautiful about Vettel’s drive, he was so far in front of the rest, and made it look so elegant and effortless in the last few laps. I was moved to tears when he finally won.