Monday, July 20, 2015

Rummaging among the ancestors

James Roger Stewart in 1937
I've been spending today, this rainy day, in the company of shadows. Piqued into action by a succession of Tweets with a second cousin I only know online, I started looking at old photos first - my grandfather in the Witwatersrand Rifles, in his adventuresome young manhood when he took off to South Africa to help run a school in Pretoria; my grandmother as the pupil teacher who set off from rural Aberdeenshire to meet and marry this man she hadn't seen for two years; the tinted photographic postcards he sent her, photos of the house, the school, the countryside, the grand buildings of Durban and Johannesburg. Eventually I shall get round to digitising some of these images, but for now I need somewhere convenient to put down some names.

Because that was the second thing I did, as the rain worsened and the day grew drearier: I phoned the brother-in-law whose persistent patience means that he knows more about my rellies than I do. And that way, I learned about one strand of the family tree - that of my maternal grandfather, James Roger Stewart, he who was a prize shot, who went to South Africa but returned with his wife and his two-year-old daughter Margaret, my mother, and who was heartbroken that a stomach ulcer prevented him and his skills as a marksman from being sent to the Front.

This is what I found:

Father David Stewart, born Ireland c. 1852; d. 15/11/14 in Gairbraid Road, Maryhill, Glasgow.
Mother Sarah Rogers, d. Maryhill, 1894.

James Roger Stewart (1878-1958); my grandfather.
Frederick Stewart (1879 - ?) -----------sons James Stewart, 1909 - ?; Frederick Stewart.
Margaret and William John, twins; died at 2 years.
David Stewart (1885-1916)
Mary (died in infancy)
George Thomson (1889 - ?)
Jane Cunninghame (died in infancy)
Sarah (died in infancy)
Christina (Auntie Chrissie) (1893 - 1978) Lived in Letchworth when I knew her.
Sarah Agnes (1894 - ?)
and by David Stewart's second wife, Margaret Cameron, whom my grandfather called "Steppie" -
Clara (d. infancy) and John (neonatal death)

Gosh. All those babies, and all those deaths, including the death of a wife. Apparently the advent of the second wife drove my grandfather to leave home - he'd have been in his late teens and they didn't get on. The photo I have here is of a younger man than I knew, but the hat and the pipe and the moustache are familiar accoutrements. My own father took the photo, presumably in the days when he would set up his spare room as a studio with four lightbulbs screwed into the base of a jelly pan and mounted on some contraption to produce the ideal lighting conditions. More photos will follow.

This century beckons ...

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

There, then, you have it. Synod recollected in tranquillity.

We used to have an English teacher, a formal, pin-suited, begowned sort of chap, who was in the habit of saying "There, then, you have it" at the conclusion of any discussion. It's the phrase that comes into my head as I sit down to recall the events of last week's General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, perhaps because in all likelihood it will be my last. If it is, I'm glad I made it so far; glad I was able to make a contribution to the effort to move my church forward in its recognition of the diversity and sanctity of human relationships. Others - notably Kelvin and Beth - have been much quicker off the mark, blogging in the evening what had happened during each day; I blame the fact that I only had my phone with me to excuse my failure to do more than tweet at the time.

It began, really, with the motion showing on the screen in the photo. There were other motions that seemed more promising, but this was the starting point. We'd all (I hope) read the Doctrine Committee's lengthy report, and receiving it was a start. The thing was that every time - were there three times in all? - the issue came up, people debated. Some contributed considerable points; others expressed bitterness. There were clearly people who felt that their traditional stance was no longer being given a chance - and believe me, it was traditional. I worry when someone says with calm certainty that they know what God wants. But there were also contributions on the side of change delivered in the measured tones of compassion and reason - words spoken by people I have grown to respect and admire - and I could feel a change in the atmosphere as we moved towards the vote that would result in Synod's deciding to ask the Doctrine Committee to remove the first section of Canon 31. ( The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual, and mystical union of one man and one woman, created by their mutual consent of heart, mind, and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.) Apparently - and I hadn't realised it - this section dates only from 1980 or thereabouts, and was inserted by the last Provincial Synod, of which I was possibly the youngest member, after the debate on the remarriage in church of divorced persons. I well recall that debate; it seemed such a big thing at the time.

You can read more details in other places. Don't come to me for details. I'm inside my memories now, and they're not especially precise. At the end of the first day's debate, I spoke on the nature of marriage in relation to the idea of man and wife being one flesh. That makes it sound measured, considered - "I spoke". But it wasn't like that. I was prompted to my feet when someone said something that I couldn't let pass, and then sat there waiting my turn with nothing in my head but scraps of Shakespeare - Hamlet saying "Husband and wife are one flesh; therefore my mother ...". I didn't know how I would begin, even, until I stood up. And then it came, and I said my piece fluently and I enjoyed saying it (I love a microphone) and people clapped. The following day I was bowled over by the words of another woman of my own generation - and people clapped. A bishop made it clear that sexual ambiguity is in all of us, and did so by recounting his own experience, and the silence as we listened was one in which I felt that something hugely hopeful had come into our midst.

But when later that day the votes were counted, there was no applause. No-one punched the air, and the sense was one of relief rather than triumph. It was as if none of us dared to believe that after all these years the church had taken the first hesitant step towards recognising that the God we believe in made us all the way we are. I was aware of tension lifted; there were tears from those that in the end we had been discussing all those years. There was a knot of people sitting together who had voted against the motion and against the idea. Their faces were tight, expressionless. It will be hard for them, though not, in my opinion, as hard as it has been all those years for the excluded and the patronised, those who, like all of us, have no choice in the matter of their sexuality.

One thing seemed to lurk like a cloud on a sunny day, and that was the defeat of the Rule 10 motion on Saturday. In a house depleted of those who didn't attend on the last morning, a majority wanted to discuss the possibility that the bishops would look again at their decree that no-one in an equal marriage could be considered for ordination.* But it was not the required 2/3 majority, so we didn't even get to discuss why they might decide to let it stand. I know that at least one bishop voted for the motion, but the Primus did not. Oh yes, there's a kind of logic to this apparent failure of logic: the change to Canon 31 will take over 2 years to become law, and has to pass through two readings and debate at diocesan level before it can do so - therefore let's not pre-empt the outcome by even thinking about changing our minds on this one. No hope held out, then, to someone in a same-sex marriage who might long to put herself forward for consideration and training; they will have to wait even longer.

It must be tough being the chairman of the board, the Primus inter Pares (first among equals) who has to front the decisions and - presumably - carry the can for whatever goes wrong. The Primus presumably doesn't want further to dislocate the noses of those who are sure we're all heading to hell in a handcart. But at least one of his equals felt we should be discussing further thought, and I thank God for him and for all the brave souls who have spoken selflessly and thoughtfully for change. It is they who inspire confidence in our church and its future.

Despite that last-minute barrier to change, it is once more a church to which I feel able to belong with joy.

*As has been pointed out elsewhere, you can apparently be considered for ordination if you are in a civil partnership, or merely quietly getting on with whatever arrangements you like to make for yourself. It's marriage that's the bar.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Being Wilma, or a day in the life of a church organist.

I shared the joke on the right the other day, on my Facebook page. Dead funny, eh? Wee Wilma with her big organ and her shotgun. Snigger. But it got me thinking, and then I was talking to an organist. (I do this frequently, you understand). And what follows is the result of my chat, and the sniggers we shared about Wilma - a joke I first saw on the timeline of another organist of my acquaintance.

Now we can't tell from this picture if Wilma is any good at the organ. After all, she's a wee old wifie who'd be fair game for a sneer anyway. But that's not the point. This is:

If the organist plays a prelude (the music before the service, if it's not a familiar word) he or she (I shall give this dual gender up from now on - take it as read) has probably taken time to choose what to play (I can't do that one again - someone will notice I did it last week ...) and had a bit of a practice at it. If she wanted to use the pedals, that would probably mean spending time in the unheated church (midweek church is usually baltic) because she doesn't have an organ in her sitting-room.

Sunday comes, and Wilma is there early enough to change her shoes and get her music out. She may have to put the hymn numbers up as well, but she hopes someone will be there to help with this. Five minutes before the service begins, she sits on the organ bench. There is bedlam in the church as people greet one another loudly, argue over whose turn it is to read, or just catch up on the week's news. She starts to play, straining to hear the quiet passages above the noise. It's still noisy as she finishes, but as if by magic the very fact of her ceasing to play quietens people - because someone will likely announce the first hymn any minute now.

And that's only the Prelude.

By the end of the service, the valiant Wilma has played five hymns and accompanied the singing of the Liturgy. (We're in a Pisky church ...). Depending on the preference of the celebrant, the procession will either wait for Wilma to play something else (a Postlude) or will start processing in the expectation that she'll get going in a moment. So Wilma plays again. This week, she's playing something rather beautiful by Orlando Gibbons. Last week, she hadn't had time to look out something and instead extemporised on a tune that had been used for a hymn. She has a gift for improvisation, but is never satisfied with her own efforts. This matters not a jot: the congregation had burst into spontaneous applause at the end. Not so this week. The Gibbons flows serenely to its conclusion and, released from prayer and politeness, the congregation gets back to its conversations.

Wilma isn't happy. She knows all too well that the Gibbons met the musical needs of perhaps two people in the church besides herself. She also knows that she could improvise tear-jerkers or rabble-rousers every day of the week, but that wouldn't make her happy either. She can't help wondering if the people who applaud one week and not the next know how insulting they are. She ponders the possibility of playing nothing outwith the actual service (and did you know that the use of "outwith" is confined to Scotland and that's why I have a red dotted line under it just now?) Would it worry people, having nothing to signify that it was time to be quiet, time to go for coffee?

Who knows. Most of all, actually, Wilma wishes one thing.

She wishes they wouldn't applaud.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Road to Siem Reap

Listening to Vaughan Williams as I am borne along 
a Cambodian highway
the red dust billowing at our passing
I hear the cool, silver tones
of choristers in the echoing chill of
vaulted stone and know
as never before
the music rooted in the land
of its gestation.  A white ox
wanders over dusty grass
as the road beneath our wheels
Turns to dry, rutted mud
and the red cloud envelops
two small determined girls
emerging from a school
as crisply clad as if they too 
could sing qui tollis peccata
with the boys whose voices sound
a million lives away.

C.M.M. 03/15

I actually wrote this on a bus - an air-conditioned coach - on a six-hour journey over roads of varying degrees of completion through Cambodia. I scribbled it on the back of a daily bulletin in handwriting that I could barely decipher and transcribed it onto my phone notes when we stopped. I was listening at the time to Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, consumed by the strangeness of the contrast between what I heard and what I was seeing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A glimpse of heaven

It is 4.15am when the phone rings. Our alarm call drags me from sleep in the strangely lucid state that such sudden awakenings sometimes bring and I am slathering on the Rid (an Aussie DEET preparation) almost before Mr B has put the phone back. By 5am our group is out of the hotel in the warm darkness heading for Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I am hauled off the coach to have my photo taken, and return with an entrance card round my neck. The photo on it looks pale, wary. My photo.

Equipped with torches of varying efficiency, we are led through the dark. We concentrate mainly on our feet, and on not walking into the person in front. Beyond my pathetic circle of light, the blackness seems absolute. I cannot tell how many people are on this pilgrimage, but sense their presence.

My earpiece crackles. After sunrise, meet under that banyan tree. I can see our guide pointing left. The tree referred to is an intensification of darkness, nothing more. I have not the least idea of what a banyan tree looks like, having only encountered one in the rudimentary graphics of Jet Set Willy, but assume that in daylight I shall recognise my fellows if I see them.

We arrive in what feels like a wide open space. To my left, I realise there are lights, tables laid with some kind of biscuits in wrappers, bottles of fizzy wine, orange juice in cartons. Everywhere else it is still black. Underfoot I can now see dusty yellow grass, and we stop. Apparently we have arrived at the vantage point.

And there we stand. Slowly, the sky turns grey. A dark red glow appears in front of us, and for the first time I am aware of the outline of pointed towers. I put my torch off, and can see my companions as vague outlines in the gloom. The light keeps growing, and we hold up phones and tablets like some primitive offering. At one point it is as if someone has thrown a switch, as millions of cicadas strike up with their own dawn chorus. A cock crows. We drink some tepid bubbly, eat a cracker or two, and continue our watch. Behind us, the moon sails above a tattered palm tree.

And then it comes. The sunrise is every bit as amazing as one could hope for. I can see the reflection of the temple in the pool which is now revealed in front of us, where the tiny ripples of visiting mosquitoes create their own beauty. I insert myself between two large people to take the photo at the top of this post. We watch until the sun is clear of the roofs, then retrace our path to find the banyan tree. It is, after all, entirely recognisable - and the only such tree to be seen.

We still have a visit to make - we are about to go inside the walls, ascend to the highest level, see the surrounding jungle in the golden morning light. We will learn that only the God can live in stone houses, and we will see amazing stone carvings. We will not end this visit till 9am, when the daytime crowds start to arrive. It will be amazing and memorable. But even without it I would have been content. I have seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A visit to Hell

I've been putting it off, I realise - but now, before I allow it to fade in my mind, I have to write about my visit to Cambodia's Killing Fields. That's a sort of general name given to, I believe, more than one location, but the one we visited was near Phnom Penh, where a memorial park has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims. The "Killing Fields" name came from journalist Dith Pram, whose story was told in the film of the same name; the place we visited was called Choeung Ek.

And that's the history, briefly, and that's all we might have heard had we been with one of the other guides, the young men and women who looked after the other three groups every time we toured off ship. But our guide was older, probably in his mid-forties, and our guide had been there, in the heart of the process that the regime of Pol Pot initiated. This is really his story.

His name was Buntah, and that name was one of his first losses when the soldiers came for him. His family had fled Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived; his father was a teacher and would have been a target for the usual rounding-up of intellectuals. Fortunately, his father's hobby was carpentry, so he was saved by the callouses on his hands in the first few encounters with terror. They settled in a village, and life went on. Buntah had seen how some of his friends had been taken away by groups of soldiers, and told his mother he was scared it would happen to him. No, she said. You're too small. He was seven.

One day he had come home from school and was waiting for his parents to return when the soldiers came. Come with us, they said.
Can I wait to tell my parents?
No, no need. Come.
Buntah asked permission to go back into the house for a moment. He left his red cap on a table, a pre-arranged sign, and went with the soldiers. He never saw his parents again, and has no idea where they are buried. He was seven.

The next three years gave him the nightmares that had kept him from sleeping the night before this first trip with us, that wakened him every time he knew he would have to relive them for others. During that time, he forgot his name, answering only to the name the comrades gave him. At ten, he learned to use an AK47 rifle. After the lesson, the older soldier told him that someone would start running over the field in front of them. Try to shoot him, he said.
I don't want to do that.
All right - give me the gun. You start running.
And Buntah took aim, and succeeded in shooting the running fugitive. It took him 28 shots. He felt bad about that.

This child, this primary-school-aged child, served at Choeung Ek, and at Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison created in a Phnom Penh school. He told us how victims were killed - not shot: that would waste ammunition. No, they were clubbed and their throats cut. His voice broke several times as he told us of these things, especially when we came to the tree where infants had their brains dashed out.
Strangely, it seemed, he was smiling one moment and weeping the next. I didn't understand the smile of embarrassment until it was explained, much later.

We stood on the iron-hard dry earth of the paths between shallow pits from which hundreds of bodies had been retrieved. We had to watch our step: the rainy season washed the paths away and exposed more bones every year, bones which had become
set as in concrete. They would be rescued when it rained again. There were shreds of black clothing; a tattered jacket hung on some wire. If we looked up, the surroundings were beautiful with blossom and trees, while at our feet it was entirely hellish. None of us spoke; we couldn't even look at one another.

Later, at Tuol Sleng, Buntah told us how he'd had to help with the torture of high-ranking prisoners. Every so often, his pronoun would change - from "they did this" to "we did this". Every time he did this, I shivered. He told us about the scar on his shaved head - how a comrade had battered his head with a rifle because he'd caught the boy eating grass in his hunger. Stealing even the ears of long grass was a crime against the regime. He had lain unconscious for hours before crawling to a hut. It was never stitched. We could see that for ourselves. He was ten years old.

It was malaria that saved him. When he became ill and couldn't work, he was discarded. A woman took him in, looked after him. When he heard that the Vietnamese army was coming, he fled into the jungle. He lived. He was discovered by a cousin, who called him by the name he'd forgotten after being brainwashed. The cousin and Buntah were the only survivors of a family of 14. Buntah had to take up school again, learning at 13 the things he'd known six years earlier. He spent a year in a Buddhist monastery, repenting, meditating, studying. He learned English and now teaches his neighbours in the evenings. He has a wife and a son, to whom, one day, he will tell his story.

But I think the repentance for what he was forced to do as a small boy is a life sentence. His work condemns him to remember - and this kind of work, guiding tourists, is coveted in a country that is still so poor. So we were the agents, that hot morning, of another bout of nightmares and self-flagellation, a hot morning that changed us all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I'm back ....

Saigon skyline
I've been away. I'm back. And actually I've been home for a fortnight, but so far I've not felt able to write about the most extraordinary journey of my life. It was so different, you see - and though conversation with a friend and reading travellers' tales and watching movies and having my evening meal with the Vietnam war playing on the telly had all done their bit, nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of being in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was, indeed, only after returning home that I read, in the small guide book that was part of our pre-holiday goody-bag, the immortal words "visiting Cambodia is more of an adventure than a holiday".

I must say at this point that what became known as "The Hanoi Cough" didn't leave us unscathed, even though I was absolutely unaffected until the day we left to travel home. (It's amazing, the protective power of belief: I was convinced it was an allergy to the pollution, of which more later). And on a small cruise ship - our home for a whole week of the trip - such maladies spread, despite the  precautions; I can only say that the other great threat to health and happiness was avoided by being scrupulously careful with what we ate and drank, and the neurotic sanitising of hands).

There are moments that I shall want to revisit, but right now I thought to record some impressions before they become part of what I know and therefore less remarkable. The first was the heat. I've never been in the tropics, and the half hour we spent outside the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) waiting for a hapless wench who was having visa trouble gave me a chance to notice how soup-like it felt. It wasn't that I was sweating much - in fact, unless I wore a rucksack, there was little outward and visible sign of sweat the whole time I was there. Interestingly, when I look back on the holiday, I realise that at no time did I complain of being too hot, other than in the cabin at night when we started taking the advice of Aussies who said to leave the air-con at 26ÂșC to avoid drying the air so much that it made coughing worse. The heat beat down when we were in the sun, battered us with its ferocity, but with a decent hat and the right clothes it was fine, as long as we didn't think about it.

The pollution proved a greater problem. A cyclo ride through central HCM City meant sitting in an
oversized bicycle basket being pedalled among hordes of motor-bikes along oceans of traffic while observing that my cyclo-rider and I were the only people I could see without a face mask. I am told that masks don't help with this kind of pollution, but the psychological effect was interesting. Even when we left the city and started to sail up the Mekong River we were affected - the farmers burn everything, so that a pall hung over the countryside every evening, and visits to traditional brickworks and crowded markets (where huge loads arrived on motor-scooters) all presented the same air-quality problem to someone more used to the cold wet sea air of Scotland in February.

All this sounds very negative, but the smells and the hot air were the ground bass to every other experience of the holiday, some of which were absolutely wonderful and require whole posts to themselves. But this introduction, an introduction for me as well as for anyone who reads it, will end now with a couple of generalisations. Vietnam seemed to me to be extraordinarily vibrant and go-ahead; the people seemed energised and forward-looking and the warfare of the 70s sufficiently in the past to be discussed as a proud history, even by people who were involved in it. Cambodia, on the other hand, showed me poverty as I'd never seen it: real, third world type basic living conditions;
terrifying lack of sanitation; acceptance of standards of hygiene that made us quail. We felt unbearably rich as we dropped in from our other world; I felt horribly guilty as the procession of coaches through rural Cambodia showered red dust over every thing and every person we passed. I know that the organisation that took us there makes a big contribution to the economy - as well as supporting an orphanage in Siem Riep - and that by visiting we were assisting in the recovery of a country that had only recently torn itself apart in a particularly brutal civil war, but I'm still thinking about it. I learned a great deal.

A final impression? The people. Unfailingly gracious and smiling whenever we encountered them. And young - at least, young to me. The average life-span in Cambodia is 68; if you live on the river, it's 58. So young, and so slender.

Oh, and that brings a memory that makes me smile: That cyclo ride? Mr B and I were among the last in our group to mount up, so that we were at the back of the train of cyclos weaving out into the traffic. By the time we rendezvoused at the Reunification Palace, we were the first to arrive, and it was clear that my cyclo driver had enjoyed overtaking one by one his colleagues who were burdened by the large white people who filled their baskets.

Me? I felt smug.