Friday, August 12, 2016

Hoolies I have known ...

This startling photo was taken by Karen Brodie last Saturday as the participants in the Festal Evensong that had just celebrated 140 years of the Cathedral of The Isles poured out in a swish of red and gold onto the steps and stopped to pose. Small people to the front, they said, and some of us obliged. Far be it from me to lurk in the shadow of a mitre ...

It's been a long time since my first posing on these steps as part of an ecclesiastical extravaganza - the picture below was taken in the summer of 1973, when I have to say I felt as if I had a bit part in a Fellini film. It wasn't long after that that I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and another 6 months would see me uprooting myself from Glasgow and moving to Dunoon on the back of an invitation from the priest whose institution as priest-in-charge of Cumbrae as well as of Holy Trinity Dunoon was the occasion for that bit of finery. You can see that in those days we were soberly dressed in black (I think they were our MA gowns, and cassocks for the boys) whereas nowadays we are more Whoopie Goldbergish in red (donated by an American church). The red gowns used to have dreadful white polyester scarves, but we managed over time to lose these ...

And if you look closely at the two photos, you should recognise one constant - or rather, four constants: the four members of the St Maura Singers, a relatively new group back then; a somewhat older one now. Two men, two women. We (the women) were both pregnant in the first photo; decidedly not so last weekend. So it's been a while, and we've seen a great many hoolies in this lovely place.

There's nothing quite like a full house to boost the spirits; nothing quite like a good choir to sing with to make the spirits soar. I reckon I've been lucky to have my faith journey as well as a chunk of my musical life linked into the Cathedral on Cumbrae - or the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, or the Cathedral of The Isles, if you prefer - for it remains special, full of benevolent spirits and still numinous in the incense-remembering silence of an evening alone in the Butterfield building. I've shared it with musicians, with retreat groups, with a Cursillo weekend, with a preaching workshop, and simply with our friend Alastair who is the organist there. But no matter when I go or with whom, this is my place* - which may explain why I look so pleased with myself in Saturday's photo.

That said, it was a crazy weekend. Many of us who made up the choir had arrived on the Friday for dinner and had rehearsed until 10pm; the following day we began at 10am and went on till 1pm with a 15 minute break; the Evensong - an enormous sing - took up the afternoon; we rehearsed till 10pm in the evening. On Sunday, we began at 9.45am to practise for the Eucharist (a Mass setting we'd never seen before); when that was over and we'd grabbed a salad it was back to get ready for a concert at 3pm. I haven't worked so hard in years, and neither has my voice.

I attribute its surprising resilience to a summer spent singing along to Leonard Cohen, actually - it's fair ironed out the break around Middle C that used to cause me such bother, and in a summer of builders and no choir it's been good to have something to sing with. How long, O Lord ...?

A final thought: I have no idea what anyone not involved in this kind of thing makes of it. It's clearly formed a big part of my life, and I've had a lot of fun. But normal? I don't think so ...

*This is not strictly true, you understand: there are probably hundreds of people who'd say the same, but ...

Thursday, July 28, 2016


I haven't posted for a bit. It's not that I haven't been sitting at my desktop: far from it. But from being someone who rarely uses earphones (they were so uncomfortable) and hasn't listened to much of what might loosely be termed popular music since the age of 18 (a while, then) I've spent most of the time doing just these two things. I always did love a good love song, back in the day, and I've always preferred what might be termed music to slit your wrists to ... And now I've rediscovered both, and as Facebook friends will hardly have failed to realise, I've been listening to Leonard Cohen.

I specified a sort of cut-off date for my interest in pop; it coincided with the rise of the Beatles and my discovery of Palestrina and Byrd and these two geniuses shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life, I thought. Yes, there were other passions - Tippet, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, to name the composers on some of my early LPs - but the music I loved to sing, and to sing along with, belonged to the Renaissance. I developed a voice as similar to the counter tenor as I could, and my reading abilities flourished as I sang in an octet (The New Consort of Voices, for anyone who was around Glasgow Uni circles in the late 60s/early 70s) and the quartet that still performs today with only a change in the soprano line, the St Maura Singers. We started a larger choir when we moved to Dunoon - The Hesperians, from the women of which group the current 8+1 choir was born. There was a church choir, intermittently - it tended to suffer from church politics and eventually vanished.

All this was made easier, of course, by the fact that I'd married a musician who works magic with choirs. But living with a musician also tends to influence some - not all - of the music played at home. Because of that influence, I've learned almost all I know. But because the current choir, 8+1, sings everything from Ah Robyn to Mamma Mia, there's been a shift in my earworm availability, and one of our repertoire got stuck that way: Leonard Cohen's Halleluia. And it was seeing a video on Facebook/YouTube of a live performance by him, a recent live performance, that started me on the online trawl for other songs of this performer who was in his mid-70s at the time the recordings were made - and that's what I've been singing along with for the last two months.

So what made me want to reflect on this? Here's a thing. For the whole of July until today, we've had work going on in our dining room. The painter finished only this morning. The floor is varnished, the room is clean - and empty. It has a wonderful acoustic. So yesterday the two of us, Mr B and I, sang and recorded St Magnus' Hymn - the two-part 12th Century piece that begins "nobilis, humilis...". And after the first go, when I was singing at my usual mezzo pitch and straining slightly on the high E, I went down an octave and immediately sounded - and felt - better. This is an area of my voice that I've been unhappy with recently; helping out on the second soprano part has led to the neglect of the lower end of my voice, with the break at Middle C becoming more troublesome than it has been since I was in my early 20s. But yesterday it was fine, with an equal resonance taking me down to F.

Why? Presumably because the ageing voice of Leonard Cohen means he now sings in his boots, and that's what I've been singing along with. I've not been belting it out, just crooning, but that gentle exercise has been enough to make the difference. I feel somehow vindicated - that I've not wasted the tradesmen-minding hours listening on headphones, but have done something my laziness has too often stopped me doing when I've not practised vocal exercises. And I've learned some cracking new songs ...

Friday, June 24, 2016

A song for a sad day.

Brain keeps singing songs - even today, when the news is so bad and the country has gone crazy. Scotland votes to stay in Europe? No matter. We don't have the say. But the songs keep coming, and maybe it makes me feel better to let them. I'm not up to more cerebral poems anyway.

Unity no more

I woke up this morning
with the sun on my face
for a moment lay peaceful
just a moment of grace

till the memory roused me
of the graphs and the polls
and I reached to discover
that we’d traded our souls.

The country had chosen
to be duped in their choice,
to reclaim some lost freedom
to follow the voice

of those who shout hatred
for the lost and the strange
who would make us a fortress
put up barriers to change.

But the sun is still shining
and the birds sing in tune
and it’s only the people
who will recognise soon

That it’s too late for thinking
and it’s too late for love
and the voices have drowned out
the song of the dove

And the magpies are fighting on the grass
And the magpies are fighting on the grass.

C.M.M. 24/06/16

Monday, June 20, 2016


It's strange how one can be so influenced in one's writing by what's going in - visually, through reading the work of other writers, or - as in this case - audibly. I've recently been listening to a good bit of Leonard Cohen's music - realise I enjoy it far more now than when he and I were both much younger, when he had the kind of voice I didn't care for at the time. But what interests me now is that with that rhythm in my brain, I've found myself thinking in a lyric metre - and that the journey there was far more seductive than the suggestion made over the years by one critic of my work that I should discipline my writing in this way.

Not that this is disciplined - and not that I took much time over it. It's a song looking for a tune, and it's a song for now, for me now and in this time, when I know that all over Britain people of my generation are going to vote to leave Europe and I feel ashamed, when politics are vile, when my friends seem self-selecting and everyone else is lost.

 I also feel furious - but all that happens is a song without a melody.

But for what it's worth ...


When I think about today
and what I am and where
and the world keeps crashing in
with anger - do I care?

Well yes, I find I’m thinking,
though nothing seems to move
in the world that I inhabit
in the people that I love -

but the violence and sorrow
and the voices screaming hate
cut across my passive questions
take me out beyond my gate

to the people sunk in apathy
to the old and the unwise,
drive me far beyond the safety zone
to where the world cries.

And though I’m growing older
and common sense says fear
in my heart I’m still protesting
in my head it still seems clear

that we cannot stand and wonder
while the world dissolves in flame -
we must fight to save the future
not live content with shame.

C.M.M. 06/16

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Unpredictable - a poem revisited.

I've finally got round to some revising - a poem I wrote in Vietnam, in the heat and humidity of our first days there, before I'd settled into accepting it all. I was put off by the comments of someone I'd considered a sympathetic critic - made the mistake of letting him see the raw first draft. However, re-reading it and changing the structure more than the content, I find it recreates the moment, the strangeness, the otherness. So here it is, more than I year after I first wrote it.


The lawns of rice deceive the eye
until one sees unwillingly
the ditches and the depth
and something strange and out of place
like graves or shrines in centre-field
and recognises foreign-ness
as tangled in this alien world
as mats of green inexorably
drifting on the muddy tide, which
people eat, like snakes in wine
and scorpions, and spiders piled
in glistening heaps to tempt the eye.
And flowing round the air’s embrace
is heavy with the drifting smoke
of stubble burning in the fields
beyond the river’s parapet where
sunset comes before its hour.
A song comes from a hidden bank
and cattle, golden in the light
descend to drink and all is strange
and lushly vibrant in the dusk.

C.M.M. Vietnam 03/15

Monday, March 14, 2016

Fair buzzing in Oban

Victorious table at dinner
I've mulled it over for the past five days, but now I realise that Synod reports are being demanded - not, happily, from me - right left and centre and it's time I put down my take on the Argyll and The Isles Diocesan Synod. The main impetus, to be honest, came from two online sources: the Primus' blog, in which he said his synod had 'a buzz', and the commiserations of friends on Facebook that I should be enduring this thing.

I'll deal with the latter first. The only commiserations I might have deserved lay in the fact that the Synod itself was held in (yet another) windowless room on a gloriously sunny day in a location next to a sea loch and an attractively wooded shore line: I did get stir crazy, and spent the lunch break picking my way down to a beach and over dub and mire as the birds sang round me. The rest of the time I was really enjoying myself, both on the pre-Synod day (it's hardly worth it to bring people from such a far-flung area unless they get a decent shot at socialising) and during Synod itself.

And that brings me to the former stimulus: I don't know what caused the buzz at the St Andrew's Synod, but I have a good idea of what contributed to our buzz. (I'd really like to know, by the way, what manner of buzzing goes on elsewhere ...) First of all, of course, we have an extraordinary bishop who could cause a buzz in a morgue. He delivered an ode, for Heaven's sake. But actually it was more than this. I am convinced that the excitement arose from the fact that instead of sitting in stupor listening to presentation after presentation we were allowed to talk to each other, about everything from the balance sheets to the first time we'd encountered the Holy Spirit.

This was achieved by a variety of methods, but primarily by the fact that on the Pre-Synod day, reviewing our progress with Building the Vision, we had two facilitators making us mix - moving people from one table to another after the manner of a Snowball waltz, for instance. At Synod, each table had a facilitator (I was one) to get people talking, as at General Synod a couple of years ago. And yes, we talked about the accounts and as a result made demands for more detail, clarification, amplification ... Before anyone asks, I had a plant at my table, an accountant who could make more sense of a balance sheet than I care to, so that I could merely render into words the data he fed me.

By the end of the two days, I came to this conclusion: people are excited by what brings them together in a situation like this. They become animated by the chance to share it with others whom they don't really know - because this unlocks the kind of honesty you sometimes find in a hospital ward, the honesty of strangers, when inhibition and fear of something you say coming back to bite you can be cast aside. So that is what lay behind the astonishment of the imported facilitator when she remarked on the alacrity with which pairs and groups got to grips with the Big Questions - she couldn't believe how little fencing she met as she moved round.

I have to confess that I enjoy facilitating a group. I love being able to make people feel at ease with one another and with the topics they've been asked to consider. I love realising I've managed to break the ice without losing anyone under it.  It feeds all sorts of my own needs for interaction - and that's before we get on to the subject matter under discussion.

I haven't mentioned the other aspects of this meeting, that had me and others in Oban from late on Monday afternoon till late afternoon on Wednesday. I've not talked about a riotous dinner after the Synod Eucharist, nor about the quiz that my table won and the Bishop's Easter Egg (our prize) that I suspect may have vanished to Cumbrae. I've not mentioned the Monday night, the dinner on the pier with old and new friends, nor the delight of watching a first-time visitor grow in confidence as the days went on. I can't tell you how much I laughed, nor how much I was laughed at. It was all part of the whole.

So yes: there was an enormous buzz at the Argyll Synod. There was laughter, there were tears, there was pastoral work being done over lunch breaks, there was kindness, there were friendships rekindled. For me, there was also the knowledge that it was my last: I've served on General Synod for the past 10 years as alternate or elected representative, and it's time to step down. I'm not a committee person, and I hate being trapped indoors. But even with all that, I'm sure of one thing. I'll miss it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Of urban open spaces and a post-war childhood

I was reading the other day about a dispute over an area of land in the West of Glasgow which is currently used as a (relatively) wild place for children to play, for people to grow things, to be free, and which is threatened by proposed housing development. The writer went on to enlarge on the features that make it so important to retain its use for recreation, particularly the benefits to children's health and wellbeing of such unstructured play in a traffic-free area in a city.

It had me thinking of my own childhood freedoms, also in the West End of Glasgow - freedoms positively enhanced by the relatively recent World War 2. I'm sure I've mentioned much of this before - the place where the land-mine demolished a bit of Polwarth Gardens' tenements, and the huge blocks of red sandstone that still littered the site sticks in my mind, although as a Novar Drive kid I didn't stray there often; we were very territorial in these days. My usual companions lived in the next close and we barely tolerated strangers ...

My usual playground was an open space in Novar Drive where the end of Lauderdale Gardens didn't reach as far as the Novar and was linked to it by a muddy track over empty, hilly ground. On the lower side, which has now been built on, there was a rubbish dump, an infill site, I suppose, where building debris (a result of bombing?) shared the space with more mundane litter like soot left by chimney sweeps (great face-paint) and at the top of which was the underground air-raid shelter in which we sometimes lit illicit fires. To the far side of the dump were two brick-built shelters with thick concrete roofs; we rarely went inside (too smelly) but played Kingball, precariously, on the roof of one.

When it snowed, I borrowed a sledge from a neighbour whose daughter was a good 6 years older than me - she would be at school and I'd be hurtling down the sloping field, often alone, for hours. I have a feeling that the winter I'm recalling was my first at school, when Hillhead Primary had an intake in January; some primary teacher must have doubled up and taken my class in the afternoon after her morning class had gone home. My mother, already having to attend to my 2 year old sister, would despair at converting my wet, grubby morning self into a schoolgirl in time for the 1pm start. (Crazy idea, now I think of it again.)

When the days grew longer,  we spent hours climbing the stunted hawthorn trees on the hillier side of this area; swinging from branches and making dens under - or on top - of them. And then there were the marathons, when we ran round and round a small path that cut through the long grass until we were gasping and scarlet in the face ... and the hiding places in the grass where we used sticks for rifles ... to say nothing of playing chase the arrows all over Hyndland, all the way to Clarence Drive ...

I was always grubby, always scratched, always exhausted by the time our parents summoned us all from the windows of our flats. When we left Hyndland for a "low door" in Broomhill I was devastated. At the age of 10, my life outwith school had been changed for ever. Shades of the prison house ...

I looked up my old haunts on Google Earth. They're barely recognisable, though "my" tenements haven't changed. This first picture is of the play area I've described in such tedious detail. The whole tenement block on the right is new - that's where the rubbish and the overground air raid shelters were. The trees are new - though clearly they've been growing for a while. The play-park just visible on the left is new, and I would have scorned it as tame and at the same time treacherous (I always got sick on swings).

 The second picture looks from the same place as the first, down Novar Drive. New tenements on the left - but you can make out where the old ones begin, with a lane in between which was always there. The top flat we lived in has the bay window just before that tall chimney head on the right of the road. It all looks very crowded, with the cars on either side. We played in the street and in our wilderness, and no-one worried. (Actually, children don't know the secret worries of the mother marooned with a baby in a top flat who suddenly can't see her firstborn and wonders where it might be ...).

What I'd actually like to know is how my own offspring would have fared in this environment, instead of the seaside town we brought them up in - and even how their children would cope with a top flat. What I do know for myself is that I couldn't return.

It was good, though, back then ...