Thursday, September 03, 2015

Washed up - a poem for today

Washed up

The children on the beach
have no cares.
Their garments lap upon the waves
that brought them here.
They are not playing -
they are dead.
Hair like seaweed in the foam,
their small bodies come to
rest where other children play.
So small, so dead. The hot tears
flow but cannot warm
those tiny souls that drift
and sigh into my heart as I
turn away, their image
floating useless in my mind.

©C.M.M. 09/15

When people take their children into leaking rubber dinghies in the dark to cross rough seas, knowing how many die every night, there is nothing “bogus” about their desperation. - Polly Toynbee, writing in the guardian, 3 September 2015

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Education debate - a builder's take

I was chatting to our builder yesterday about schools. It seemed to me that this successful tradesman, running the building firm that he inherited from his father, had the secret of attainment in school well sussed. He attended the same school as my children, at the same time, and he told us a story.

He was in a science class - about S3/4 level - who were being taught by a supply teacher. She was pleasant, but deadly boring. He and his pals began to amuse themselves; the lesson was doomed. So, it seemed, was the supply teacher - for all knew well that she'd never regain the control necessary for learning to take place. Ah well.

A week later his father called him over for a quiet word. The essence of it was this: You were in a class being taught by Mrs. Bloggs? And you misbehaved and upset her? Right. Mrs Bloggs is a good customer of ours - in fact, I'm working on her house right now. If I ever hear that you've stepped out of line in her class again, I'll f******g well do you. Right?

Crude but effective. But it contains the seeds of success in many a small town school, where no-one is unknown and where the strangest connections emerge with remarkable rapidity. Pupils, teachers, Head Teacher and parents are linked in a symbiotic relationship in which all have to play their part or be found out. It makes for a relatively enjoyable existence for all - and that is where I taught for over 20 years without any of the negative fall-out which newcomers to a small town tend to fear.

But what else can we learn from this story? Nothing new, actually. The seeds of underachievement are to be found on both sides of the garden: boring teachers who wouldn't inspire the most docile of students, and uninterested or incapable parents. And then there's the growing sub-group of hostile and resentful parents as well, the ones who encourage their children not to let the teacher "get away" with any attempt to prevent their precious weans from walking all over everyone. Any one of these on its own will spoil the business of learning; more than one and we might as well all go home.

So what do you do to ensure that none of these weeds enter the Eden of education? No amount of pupil testing is going to help Mr Tedious to become a glowing enthusiast; no closing of the attainment gap is going to happen without somehow involving the parents in the enterprise. And no political manifesto is going to make a scrap of difference unless a whole generation of teachers and parents are somehow unified in one glowing, aspirational whole where the excitement of maths and the joy of literature and the joy of finding out become more important than a tidy record of work or where the next meal is coming from, or the next boyfriend, or the next fix.

I wouldn't have Nicola Sturgeon's job for anything. But those who advise her, who tell her that National Testing is the way to ensure that every child can have the same chances that she did, these advisors should perhaps begin by pointing at the Sturgeon family. They were the bedrock of the First Minister's success.

And she maybe managed to avoid the boring teachers ...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Women and men and trains - and Jeremy.

I clocked Jeremy Corbyn's thought about women-only compartments on trains but didn't dwell on it until I read Kelvin's post and tried to leave a comment (it was eaten by gremlins so I'm doing it here instead). So - would this be A Good Thing? Or is it too reminiscent of purdah and all that western women associate with such seclusion: veils, burkahs, kinder, k├╝che, kirche ...? And I considered my immediate reaction, and tried to reconcile it with the person people think I am, and this is what came bubbling to the surface.

I don't travel solo much on public transport these days, but one of the pensioner-like things I do is use the bus from Dunoon - Glasgow. It's free, it takes you on the ferry without your needing to get wet on the pier, it drops you in the centre of town, you can doze off on it and not be taken past your stop. But nowadays I either sit on the outer seat of a pair, or sit beside another woman, because of an incident a year or so ago. Dear, sensitive reader, picture the scene:

I am sitting on the bus which I boarded in Dunoon with about seven people. I am in a window seat, looking out in a dwam at the wet road when we stop to let people on in Gourock. A tall man - not fat, just tall - of about 70 sways up the aisle and crashes down in the seat next to me. He lands half on top of me, to be accurate, squashing my arm and pressing his own arm into my right tit. I wait for him to apologise and move. I go on waiting. I stare at him. He smiles, complacently. I point out that he is too close for comfort, but he makes no move. I tell him he's invading my space and I want him to get out of it. He scoffs, and moves very slightly. He then begins to complain in a loud voice about unreasonable women, until I tell him I'm going to make a scene if he doesn't desist.

I take refuge in Twitter, in which medium my niece saves the day by making me laugh aloud. (Annoying man finds this discomfiting and I am glad). She has coined a phrase to describe her pet hate on public transport, for it is younger men with  lava crotches that give her the most trouble. And happily annoying man isn't going all the way to Glasgow and I am freed from his clammy presence.

Kelvin in his post talks about the need to deal with violence against women, and I agree with him. But neither my Annoying Man nor my niece's spread-legged travelling companions are being overtly violent - they're just behaving in a way that none of the men in my own circles would ever behave. They wouldn't be in my circles for long if they did. But they represent two distinct classes of public transport-users: throwbacks to a past age and present-day strutters (you know the walk?) who still think they are the dominant species. The former are likely to think it's all right to address women as "dearie" if they complain, and the latter to use Anglo-saxon monosyllables every second word in conversation as well as hogging all the available space.

None of which is actually threatening - or is it? And yes, in a way it's less threatening as one becomes frankly old. But if I had to take an evening train alone, as I used to when I caught the 11pm from Edinburgh to Glasgow in my student days after a concert, I'd love to have the choice of a women-only carriage. And if there were to be such a thing, I'd use it. Every time. Even though I feel ashamed of writing that, even though it seems a betrayal of the equality I have worked for all my life, I know it's true.

And maybe it's because Jeremy Corbyn is my generation that he knows it too ...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tea-parties and bigotry

I've just been reading a most unedifying church magazine. It's called SATNav, and purports to help the good people of Ayr to navigate the life and witness of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of that town. The very first item is, unsurprisingly, the Rector's letter, which begins thus:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3: 16
The July/August edition of SAT Nav contained a press release about The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision to move, over the forthcoming two General Synods, toward the introduction of same-sex marriage being permitted within the SEC’s churches. I thought it appropriate that I let you know my views on this matter…

... And then he reveals that he has signed the declaration of the statement of the Scottish Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship issued shortly after General Synod. This states:
In contrast to [the decision of General Synod to "delete any reference to marriage as being between a and a woman"], we reaffirm the doctrine of marriage as given in the Old Testament in Genesis 2:24, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:31 - ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’

At the end of the statement, he invites people to add their names to it by email. Lest they should hesitate over this step, he adds:
What General Synod has done then, is not only to take a major departure from authentic Biblical Christianity as practised by the overwhelming majority of churches worldwide, but to hasten the decline and possible final extinction of the SEC.

He backs all this up with this sweeping assertion:
As the SEEF statement makes clear above, God’s wish since the dawning of time for all humanity is that marriage between one man and one woman is the only place for sex to take place and that everyone else, irrespective of their sexual orientation, should lead a life of celibacy. That is because, in God’s design, through marriage, men and women are meant to complement one another in many ways, not just for reasons of procreation; ways that are just not possible in same-sex relationships.

I become terribly worried when people assert that they know God's wishes in this fashion. We could all do that, could we not? No. Surely such dogmatic insistence trivialises belief. For Christians like me, only one command comes through with that kind of clarity, and that is the demand that we love one another as God has loved us. Heaven knows, that's hard enough without adding man-made conditions (and yes, I mean man-made).

We are then assured that there will be no same-sex marriages in his incumbency, but that anyone who comes to the church will be loved and cared for regardless ... etc etc. Presumably his flock will conveniently forget that they will only experience this care up to a certain point - or might indeed simply note that no priest in the SEC is allowed at the moment to conduct such ceremonies and wonder what he's going on about.

The letter ends thus:
As a church, ahead of forthcoming Diocesan and General Synods, there will be plenty of opportunity to further discuss General Synod’s decision.

On an entirely different subject, I am looking forward to the Holy Trinity tea parties we'll be hosting at the rectory and in members’ homes from this month. (You'll find more about this on the back page.)

If you read my blog post of yesterday - which I wrote about an hour before seeing the above - you will know that the scones and stereotypes kind of mission is alive and well in Ayr, but that's a wry comment rather than the main point of my putting all this stuff here. What I'm asking is this: How would you feel if this arrived in your inbox, as a member of Holy Trinity Ayr? What happened to all the thoughtful discussion that went on at Synod? What happened to the care for ministry to all  that would prevent a rector from coming out with such a bold statement of personal prejudice? Did he, I wonder, tell the vestry who appointed him that he was mired in the first century and would admit of no further growth in understanding?

He refers to the imminent demise of the church if it chooses to remove the clause about men and women from the canon on marriage. Does he know that that specificity was a recent addition to the canon?

But I'm becoming incoherent. I'm putting this stuff here because I am realising what we're up against when it comes to moving forward in the church I want to remain in. The person who forwarded the newsletter to me did so with the comment that now I would know why she was never going back to Holy Trinity Ayr. She's not a stereotypical agitator - she's a straight woman in her 60s who is furious. How is she being ministered to? She can't just go down the road and find another church - it's not easy when a team rector's influence covers a wide geographical area.

I know how fortunate I am at the moment. My local church is ministered to by a thoughtful, forward-looking priest who is careful to take everyone with him and who thinks about the consequences of his words. This could change in the future, for clergy move on. But to my mind, tea-parties and bigotry make up the poison that is eating at the credibility of our church, and if numbers indeed flock to hear their ignorant prejudices confirmed on a weekly basis it's not a church that I want to have any part of.

So - a sour note to start the week after the exuberant joy of Saturday. God help us.

Monday, August 24, 2015

No scones, no stereotypes

I found myself thinking about Mission in church yesterday. I suspect something in the sermon triggered such thoughts, and the reflection that the word tends to make me uncomfortable. I have never been able to contemplate standing on a street corner with a sweet smile and a bible in my hand, nor picture myself chapping on doors to ask the bemused inmates whether or not they're saved; I'm not the kind of person who invites neighbours round for tea and scones because I don't bake, much, don't eat scones, and drink tea that makes most people turn up their noses. So there's never been an area, especially since I stopped teaching, where much mission seemed a possibility. (Note: I never tried to indoctrinate my little charges; there's just so much Christian background to our literature that it was easy to hold it out, as one might a visiting card...)

But yesterday I realised that I'd been indulging in a spot of Mission (with a capital M) on Saturday. Yes, it was on the initiative of Provost Kelvin and his pals in St Mary's Cathedral, but there I was walking through the streets of my native city, in the middle of the Pride parade, holding aloft a placard saying "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". And as I've remarked already, people clocked this, pointed out the placards and the big plastic banner (quite heavy after an hour) and took photos of us and - on more than one occasion - gave us the thumbs-up.

The surprise element in Mission. That's what was up on Saturday, and what used to work, I felt, when I was teaching. It was underlined by Kelvin's wee badge: Yes, I am real. Not for me the polite presence behind a tea-table or the lone voice on the doorstep - because both would put me off religion for a start. Mission as the unexpected presence, the assertion that one can be a Christian and not conform to stereotypes - that's where I belong.

Another problem nailed. Cheers, Kelvin!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Proud to march with Pride

I'm no novice when it comes to marches, gatherings, protests and the like - from joining in a CND march when I was 16, the day after the fire that destroyed Glasgow's St Andrew's Halls (how do I remember that?) to organising marches in Dunoon in the 80s, picketing the pier at the American base on Holy Loch, marching through Clydebank, gathering in George Square; from producing a handful of protestors at Faslane to joining the huge anti-war march in Glasgow in the Blair era. I've walked miles in various linked causes, mostly in the rain. You'd think I might have had enough ...

But today I joined my first Pride march through Glasgow, as part of a group of Episcopalians stressing the point that there is a church where gay, transgender, bi and straight are welcomed, and where some of us are working for the day when anyone - of whatever sexual orientation - will be able to marry there if they want to. That's why I was there - a straight marcher among the most varied crowd I've ever been in - because the injustice of the current prevarication and and discrimination in church circles that means we're still wrangling over whether or not we'll join civil society in a bit of human decency.

What was it like? Well, to be honest, it was brilliant. I think a big part of it was the sheer exuberant joy of the thing. No-one seemed to be angry, resentful, pugnacious - though God knows many present must have had reason to be. The music, pumping from supermarket lorries bursting with people and sound-systems, was infectious (as long as you weren't standing right in front of it. Then it was merely deafening.) Dancing Queen at that volume? The Proclaimers? Great. Loved it. And as we marched from Glasgow Green through the city, people hung out of windows, took photos, waved, smiled. It was particularly gratifying when people clearly took photos of the banner shown above, gave the thumbs up, showed others that there was a real live priest in his black duds and all marching under a rainbow umbrella.

I wondered how it'd feel, being so much in the minority on this day, but to be honest it didn't feel like anything. I felt I was in a crowd of people, united in a common purpose. No-one could tell if I was straight or not; I couldn't have cared less. Everyone was friendly. It was a good place to be.

But it would have been lovely to have had one of our bishops marching beside me ...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Missing Link

 Readers of this blog will know that I've been dabbling in my family tree - can one dabble in a tree?
It was this photo that clinched the knowledge that the families I'd been trying to link were indeed the one extended family. This came from a tweet from the cousin I've been pestering for the past year, intermittently, with suggestions about various relatives and dates, and when I looked carefully - i.e. not on my phone screen - I recognised faces. I hope he doesn't mind me sharing it further, with my part of the family as it were ...

The first face I recognised was that of the young man in uniform in the middle of the back row. He was my uncle, my mother's wee brother. I didn't notice right away, but I'm convinced the woman second left on the front row is his sister, my aunt. But the face I saw next was the woman standing beside my uniformed uncle - and then the man beside her. My Great-aunt Chrissie, and her English husband Jack Smith. That tilt of the head - those ears ...

And then I went burrowing and found this photo in a box, a nice, clear photo taken by my father.
Recognise the same couple? This was taken in 1958, in Arran, outside the house we rented every summer, and I remember the day they came to visit - presumably because we were there for the whole 8 weeks of the school holidays when they had paid a visit to Scotland, travelling from Letchworth where they lived. And yes, that's me in the photo, with a dire hairstyle - it took me a while to find what to do with short hair after my pigtails came off; I owed, I fear, a debt to Helen Shapiro for several years thereafter.

But how strange that it should be Aunt Chrissie, someone we rarely saw, who should be so immediately recognisable. My grandfather's sister, whose voice I remember as being wonderfully deep - a family trait. I can remember her telling her husband to go and keep my father company when he went outside on this day, worn out by hours of family gossip, seeking solitude: how we laughed! He always joked ruefully about how this same Aunt Chrissie told him that when he married my mother he became her 57th relative; for the rest of his life he referred to my mother's family as the Heinz 57 varieties.

So that's today's excitement. This genealogy malarky can become engrossing - and hugely time-consuming.