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Clare's Café highlights w/c 16 April

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Clare English Clare English | 15:47 UK time, Thursday, 19 April 2012

It's difficult to pin down what Kathleen Jamie is; a poet, a writer,a philosopher? What's beyond debate is her ability to find the most inspired arrangement of words to describe the natural world around us. She appeared on The Book Café this week to talk about her latest collection of essays, SIGHTLINES, looking for all the world as if she wanted to be anywhere else. Kathleen Jamie is an under the radar kind of gal - contained, a shy person but when she reads her work aloud you couldn't find a more compelling voice to tune in to. I asked her about her uncanny ability to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her book records a second set of journeys that have been gathered over six years (since the publication of her previous book, FINDINGS).

This time she travels further afield and to some unexpected locations. SIGHTLINES opens with AURORA, an essay set in the Arctic as she sails through iceberg-strewn fjords. Jamie's description of the vast looming forms passing her onboard are exquisite; they have, she says, the "hauteur of a huge catwalk model". You'll find plenty more examples every bit as striking as that but I was particularly taken by her powers of observation in an essay called PATHOLOGIES, an intensely personal contribution written not long after the death of her mother. Jamie contacted Ninewells Pathology Lab and asked for a look around. The idea was to examine the inner natural world of the body. She soon found herself staring at a substantial portion of a liver, with gall bladder attached. She was warned by the Professor helping her that she might feel "seasick" as she gazed down the moving microscope- apparently it's a common occurrence. What did Kathleen Jamie see? Something more than mere pathology, that's for sure.
She was admitted to another world, "where everything was pink". There was an estuary with a north and south bank- apparently a bit like the Tay at low tide! How many scientists or medics working in a path lab will hear that kind of interpretation of a biopsy in the course of a working day?

Another part of that essay really grabbed my attention. The day after her mother died she notes "when death is a release rather than a disaster, there's a " high, glassy feel, as though a note is being sung just too high to hear." I can identify with that but I would never have been able to articulate that feeling in a million years. Kathleen Jamie - introvert, poet, writer, philosopher and then some.

A sharp change of tone and tack later in the show as we immersed ourselves in the natural world once again. Frieda Morrison, the doyenne of gardening was paired with an equally knowledgable gardening colleague, Sinclair Williamson (who glories in the title of Gardens Adviser for the National Trust for Scotland.) What an dynamic duo they proved to be, powering their way through bundles of recommended spring-time reading. They provided more than a few LOL moments too. We only had ten minutes to spare on this section but I could have listened to Frieda and Sinclair for hours. Thanks to both for their advice on my own garden predicaments... I'll be trying them out as soon as I can.

Magazines and catwalks are generally populated by sullen faced size zero models skulking about with that strange clippy cloppy gait they adopt for the big hi profile shows. Where's the joy in fashion? Here's a better question.... where's the diversity? How often do you see a larger sized model - even an 8-10? All too rarely, but if Edinburgh College of Art has anything to do with it, that might be about to change. This year's final show will feature plus size models. The college has become the first educational institution to go all out for body diversity, in line with a nationwide campaign called ALL WALKS; we've had their figurehead, former Tv presenter Caryn Franklin on the Culture Cafe before. Her mission is plain - to put a range of body shapes, sizes and races on the catwalk. So will Edinburgh's move prompt others to follow? Lecturer Mal Birkinshaw joined us on The Culture Café and told me how he got his students to think about the body they were creating the clothes for. His prescription was brilliantly simple...he sent them off to the Portrait gallery to see how bodies had been represented by painters over the centuries. Students were also required to write about body diversity and give it some serious consideration, and finally they were asked to attend life drawing classes. Why wouldn't you concentrate on the body if you are designing clothes- a no brainer? Apparently we've been barking up the wrong tree for years with the emphasis on the designs, ignoring the frame they cover, according to Mal. He's reignited the debate and along with his students, he might just pull off a paradigm shift. Amen to that.


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