Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading

What have I been reading recently? Nice of you to ask - I have been reading more than I might, because it's been the kind of weather that allows you to read outside, and I'm an outdoorsy sort who can't bear to sit in if the sun's shining or even if it's not and ... and ... Enough. Right now I've started on Lucretia Grindle's The Lost Daughter  and I'm enjoying it hugely, in the way you  do when you've read several of an author's books and settle comfortably into the environment - in this case Florence - and the characters (Italian cops) you've met before. I continue to be slightly irritated by the writer's tick of consigning adjectival clauses to a separate sentence more than once (once is fine, but it's too distinctive a trait to use more often), but she writes a good tale and the setting is terrific.

I'll not go on about that, however, because I'm just settling in - though I may return for a final thought. Before embarking on the Grindle I was reading the deeply unsettling The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin. Set in Canada and Cambodia, this is a story of the Killing Fields, so I'm now considerably more clued up on Pol Pot and the horrors of that era than I was in the 70s, when I was too preoccupied with bringing up children. As I shall be visiting Cambodia and Vietnam next year, it seemed a good way for a fiction fiend to pick up some history, and a pretty ghastly history it is. Echlin writes in an elegiac way that incorporates Cambodian words into her dialogue and reflects the music that brings the lovers of her story together, but under the poetry of her language is an undercurrent of tension that meant I sometimes had to stop reading (at bedtime, usually) before I was ready to.

I read another thought-provoking book in Frankie and Stankie, by Barbara Trapido. This is a delightfully-narrated account of growing up in the South Africa that existed while I was a child, the South Africa of growing apartheid seen through the eyes of the child of white liberals who nevertheless mingled with the rest of white society - though they took a dim view of the Afrikaaners, whom they saw as boorish country clods. The child-like clarity of the prose means that events happen without necessarily being interpreted; with our hindsight we are able to see how things gathered their own ghastly momentum and changed a world even as its inhabitants watched. I'm glad to have read it.

And then there was the appropriately seasonal Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell. This is the story of a family, beautifully and lovingly told, with fascinating flashbacks gradually explaining what is happening and making it possible for the family to continue. I especially enjoyed the seemingly effortless mastery of the writer, the firm grasp of tense, the fine strokes of characterisation. Set in the heatwave of July 1976 - a heatwave in London which was not, I can tell you with all the authority of a diarist, a heatwave in Dunoon - the writer keeps the heat there, oppressively present without being over-described, so that you are constantly aware of the difficulties of coping rationally with any crisis. I saved this one up for the appropriate season, and it went down a treat.

And now, chums, I'm away back to Florence. I'm not after all going to say any more till I'm finished. The sun is shining in the garden and I want to read ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A unique privilege

On the kind of day when I look out at the rain and mist and breathe a prayer of thankfulness that I have no visitors staying, no children hoping for a visit to the beach or an adventure in the forest, I find myself reflecting - for solace, as it were - on what it is that makes being a grandparent so special. Remember, I never thought of myself as the maternal type - until my first son was born. Then I was maternal, but actually only towards him, and towards the second son who followed four years later. I still found other people's children attractive only insofar as they met my criteria, not simply because they were children, and I taught adolescents in the assumption that they were doing what the name suggests - growing older, becoming people. And I liked people.

So when my sons were men and became husbands and announced that they were to be fathers, I was not at all sure how that would feel. Maybe mothers are always like that; it's not something I've discussed. And then the babies were born and my world was turned upside down for the second time in my life. The connection to these tiny infants was unbelievable in its impact, maternal instinct or no. What today's reflection consolidated was that for almost seven years now I've enjoyed the immense privilege of a chance to experience the uncritical acceptance and love from children who seem to know, whether we meet frequently or seldom, that there is a bond that can be trusted and a love that will never be withheld. I regard it as a unique privilege, even though it is shared by other grandparents, because it is unique in any one life - unique and undreamed-of.

When we are parents, we are so busy being parents that we tend not to notice the passage of time other than in landmarks like walking, talking and teeth. Our own lives are so full with the minutiae of care that there is little time to reflect - and then the time has passed, the children are drifting out of our orbit, sharing their lives with increasing numbers of strangers, becoming people just as we did before them. There is a sense of a faint regret, perhaps, but we are caught up in the amazement that these new people came from us, and the anxiety or exhilaration that surrounds their achievements. Finally, they leave - and I think sons do this more conclusively than daughters - and the cycle begins again.

The grandchildren, that golden second chance to be with children and love them and have them smother you in sticky kisses and tell you they are going to miss you when they say goodbye, come and bring with them that added bonus of perspective. A grandparent knows all too well how swiftly that chariot careers along on its breathless wings; this grandparent has learned that every moment - even the tired, grumpy moment - has to be cherished and savoured like a mouthful of fine wine, like the perfect cadence hanging in the silence that applause will soon break.

And that is why I will walk away from other demands if my family, my two-generational family, asks me to; that is why I defer final commitment to other tasks; that is why I add caveats to most of the arrangements I make these days. For it is a fact that to be a grandmother who can tell interesting stories and supply adventures when asked, I still need to be living my own interesting life - so there are arrangements made, commitments given, and life sometimes feels almost as hectic as it was when I was a young parent.

The difference is that I can lay a great deal of it aside. And when I have to be grandma, I do.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cloudy morning

I started writing this before the current spell of dry weather, when I was longing for it to look and feel like summer. As the solstice is rather cloudier than anything we've seen in the past week, it seems a suitable time to finish it off and publish it...

As I step outside
the damp, birdsong air opens wide
freeing my claustrophobic brain
from the confines of waking thought
and the fears of night. Why do we
close ourselves in grey, these days
that threaten rain? I want to
sing with the birds in the promise
of the new light, the freshness of green - to forget 
to fear the darkness that awaits 
at this day’s end, at all our ends.

And in the rain-washed morning
a hidden bird repeats why
not, why not, why not?

© C.M.M. 06/14

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Time to think ... about Synod

P's & G's, complete with MDF gallery?
By the time I finish writing this, I'm sure everyone else will have moved on. But if I had attempted a blog post about Synod at the weekend, when all the other bloggers (sounds rude, that) were getting their posts out, I would have written something I'd subsequently regret. No; I needed time to reflect. And I'm glad I did - I hope I remember to return to why later.

Having been one of the signatories to a Rule 10 motion that would have hastened us along the path to legislating for same-sex marriage in church, I was pretty fed up when the motion failed to attract the two-thirds majority that would have allowed us to deal with the subject in open debate. Synod wanted the debate - but not quite enough of us wanted it. I have a strong suspicion that the secret ballot, as we tautologously referred to it, along with the confusion resulting from a bishop-led objection to a show of hands, led to several inattentive or merely poor souls voting the wrong way - in other words, not as they actually thought they were voting.

This raises another scunner (no, auto-correct, not scanner: I'm Scottish.) The venue for this year, the once-grand and now modernised cavern of P's & G's, didn't make for the same contact with the chair as we had in the more regimented but better-lit surroundings of Palmerston Place. Punters in the middle or rear of the space couldn't communicate confusion or unreadiness without a great deal of palaver involving roving mikes and the bearers of the mikes peering into the throng to try to find the confused/challenged/challenging one. This being the case, it was more than ever important for the various chairs to speak with clarity and decision, and certainly not to rely on the overhead screens to make up for the deficiencies in their own communication skills. (People don't always cast their eyes screenwards in moments of stress, especially when they're rummaging through their Synod papers and have their reading glasses on anyway.) And, as every teacher knows, you can't simply assume that everyone is paying attention the moment you open your mouth; the table-group layout makes (again, as every teacher knows) for covert communication or simple distraction.

But the single thing that got to me this year was the sudden descent of a whole bunch of protagonists into fuzzy, warm and ultimately vapid religious jargon. And tone. There. That's it. There's a whole raft of expressions that belong in this jargon, and some others that are pressed into service and will never be quite the same again (like Francis of Assisi after Margaret Thatcher had appropriated his words).  "Unpack" comes to mind, and they're not talking about the messages (shopping, if you're not from these parts). No-one called a spade a spade, let alone a bloody shovel, and there was no place for what one commentator has described as "honest fury". Those who were feeling such fury had nowhere to go, because it would have been smothered in soft fuzziness, smiled at and forgiven.

Now, I was personally grateful for individual kindness and concern in the aftermath, even as I still raged for friends old and new whose hurt and frustration were all too apparent - but I have huge problems for this kind of institutionalised, forced gentleness. For a start, I think it betrays the god I believe in. I think it castrates the prophet and makes a virtue of passivity. And where was the passion, the leadership that would have given some sense of a vibrant community realising its past and grasping the opportunity to move into a new, juster present?

I can't at the moment think if I'm actually at the end of my time on Synod, or if I have another year to go. Maybe someone reading this will be able to tell me. The Primus gave us a sliver of hope that things may move in 2015, but who knows whereI'll be then? A friend gave me even more hope in that  his perceptions have changed post-Synod, and that is joyous news. That's the news that makes me glad I waited to post this, as there would have been nothing to redeem the situation had I leapt in. But if anyone is planning any more soft play areas for the church, any more padded "conversations", I'll be returning to a quip that was going the rounds on Facebook recently:

If anyone asks you "What would Jesus do?", remember that overturning tables is always an option.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Of fear (with a nod to Bacon)

Does anyone read Bacon's Essay's in school any more? I doubt it. They don't really strike one as everyday fare for your average 16 year old. And yet ... I have provided a link there that leads to one of the essays, Of Death, that I read when I was in S4, one whose opening sentence sticks in my mind to this day - and I have not exactly read them regularly since. I did, however, on one occasion in living memory - in the 90s, I think - find myself being given sole charge of a wonderfully sparky group of new S3 pupils for the whole of their Standard Grade course, and filled the short month of June with a crash course in Bacon. They rose to the challenge, and when I set them the further challenge of 'doing a Bacon' over the summer holidays, came up with some wonderful almost-parodies.

And in a way, that's what I'm doing now. Only I'm not bothering to write in a Baconesque style - I doubt I could - but rather seek to examine fear in much the same spirit as Bacon might. That adventure that formed the hub of my last post - we've been dining out on it, as I knew we would, and some people - in the comments on the blog, or on Facebook, or to my face - have expressed wonder at our bravery in surviving all this. Of course, it wasn't bravery. It was necessity - and I suspect that though they sometimes coincide, that wasn't the case for us. Why? Because there was no fear to overcome.

Think back to Bacon (for of course you've checked the link by now - no?) Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark. That's the line that sticks - and it's true, even if we'd object to the male presumption these days. But that's because we have time in which to contemplate our mortality, worry about the nature of our dying, fret about its propinquity. (I think I'm being infected ...) But when we were in that little speedboat, weighed down with boots and packs so that if we'd fallen into the sea we'd have had a job ever coming up again, all during that time when the waves were breaking over us and the cliffs seemed too close, there was really no time to feel afraid. I wasn't happy, and in fact every fibre of my being was screaming - but it wasn't in fear. No, it was screaming something like "You stupid people - this is not a good place to be! It's wet and dangerous!" - and so on, like a nagging parent you soon get used to ignoring.

Even when we had to transfer from one bouncing boat to another, all I could feel was a kind of distaste - and a strong desire not to make a fool of myself. I realise now that the latter pushed aside the realisation that people could be trapped between boats, crushed or killed - because it was afterwards that I thought about these outcomes. At the time there was a bit of swearing, the odd shriek, and obedience ("Now, lady - jump!" and I jumped). There was none of the paralysing fear that grips your gullet, gives you pins and needles in your hands, makes you want to vomit. How do I know these symptoms? Because I can get them - when I have to catch an early flight, perhaps, or when I think something awful has happened/might happen to someone I care about - not consistently or predictably, but with hideous randomness of occasion and severity, rendering me useless and nauseous and able to think only of the worst possible outcome.

Perhaps Hamlet had it all along. It's "some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th'event" (outcome, here). I wasn't thinking of the outcome, I was thinking only of the present - or, to be more precise, I wasn't thinking at all. I was doing. Hamlet again, fighting pirates - "In the grapple, I boarded them": he wasn't thinking while he fought, because he had to get on with it; it was only when he allowed himself to fret about the morality of killing his uncle in cold blood that he was in trouble. When his uncle was obviously indulging in wickedness, Hamlet could bump him off in hot blood and die content. (Sorry for the spoiler, if you don't know the story ...)

To round this off, I want to think briefly about war. We've been watching these old guys who were once young and seasick on the approach to the Normandy beaches and who are now lauded as heroes - and yes, they are heroes, and survivors, and human, and ordinary, all at once. When I was a post-war child, listening to my parents' stories, whether of bombs on neighbouring tenements or booby-trapped oases in the Western Desert, I used to wonder how people could bear it. How did they survive at all? Why did they not simply die of fear, curl up in a corner and never come out again? And I suspect that the answer is that when something frightening is happening to you, you get on with it. As long as it's actually happening, and you have to act in some way, there isn't time for the fear to overflow. The adrenaline has other uses than to make you feel sick.  These soldiers who landed on the beaches - they were sick with the sea and God knows what else, but when the ramps were down they were off, and they were soldiers.

And of course, I know all this - but actually I know it as I know far too many things: from fiction. From reading. But it has taken me till now, because someone else landed me in a situation that could have had a very different ending, to own the knowledge  that fear will only paralyse if you let it.

And, not to end on a moralising note, I have to confess that I've been seduced by Bacon, and may read some more of his essays before I close that tab. Because the books are gone, long gone ...

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Turkish saga - not a Saga holiday

I'm going to tell you a story. It's a true story, and it's already been told  in the form of a letter to a holiday company, but I feel the need to tell it with less restraint. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin ...

It's another glorious day in the area of Fethiye, Turkey, the second last day in a week of guided walking among the hills of the this beautiful place. Our group, the one doing the more challenging walk of the day, has enjoyed a morning hike over the hills into a lovely valley, a lunch of mezze and beer and Turkish coffee, an amble down the road to see some Lycian tombs. Now we are going to be taken to the entrance to the deserted village of Kayaköy, where our Turkish guide will show our leader - who is new to the area but has a map, of sorts, and instructions - which route to take in order to end up on the right path to get us all, eventually, to the Blue Lagoon at Olu Deniz. So far, so ...

So bloody disastrous, actually. For this is where the story really begins. Bear with me.

We feel we're  being rushed through Kayaköy, the village that inspired Louis de Berniere's novel "Birds without Wings", a sad, ghostly testament to the folly of politics. If we were closer, we might be able to see our leader's worried expression and be worried ourselves - for we know he's already lost the way on an earlier walk. But we take our photos, and wonder where the church is, the one we're supposed to be able to see inside, and by the time we arrive at the upper limits of the village the onward path has been chosen and we're ready to head out of the valley and down to the sea.

For a while, it seems ok. Even when we have to retrace our steps uphill when a chosen path (all way- marked, but with varying degrees of authority) proves to be leading in the opposite direction to the way we want to go, even then we feel we might be heading, eventually, to the Blue Lagoon. After all, is that not sea ahead, is it not vivid blue, is that not a pleasure-boat we can see through the trees ...? And we come to a halt.
Not the Blue Lagoon

We are on a small cliff, beside a stone water-cistern. The path leads to the left - the correct direction - and peters out. We try a short foray, return to the cistern. Our leader by this time has disappeared down the hill. Someone has heard him mention a boat. We think it's a joke - but hey, that big pleasure-yacht-thingy is still moored below us, belting out pop music. We sit on the ground under the trees; we drink some water; some of us obey the call of nature. I check my phone - great signal, so can see Google maps ... and we're a very long way indeed from where we should be. I point this out to a few people, but it is a rule on these holidays that the Leader has to be followed and obeyed or the company takes no responsibility for you. (We later learned that the Turkish guide had been told to accompany us to the start of the hill path. Had he misunderstood?)

And so it is that we find ourselves on a small beach, with the promise of a boat. The large boat with the music is preparing to sail - but to sail out of the bay, not towards us. We can see an inflatable dinghy beside a jetty; there is a rowing-boat, and there is a speed boat with an outboard motor. We are still making jokes, wondering how many will be left behind, when a man in a sports jacket appears magically (I must have been looking elsewhere; it seems magical) in the speedboat, fires up the engine, makes a showy sweep round the headland and returns to the jetty: our lift.
Waiting for the speedboat

The boat looks ... small. I later find it has a maximum capacity of 10. We are twelve, and we have rucksacks, walking boots and poles. Somehow, we are all squeezed onto the hard plastic seats and told to hang on. Some manage to get their packs off; mine is still fastened firmly to my back. There is not a life preserver to be seen - other than the decorative traditional lifebelt in front of the tiny wheelhouse. We move away from the jetty. The man driving us turns to me. "You will get wet," he says.

I shrug. What can I do? The woman next to me gives me a spare jacket to cover my camera, make me feel better, just as a wave curls over the boat and soaks me, and her, and the other two women in the stern. The engine roars as we hit the open sea and the open sea hits us. Through sea-streaked sunglasses I can see Mr Blethers and our friend Leo, who is next to him, rise into the air as the prow lifts with the acceleration. He seems to bounce, crash down again. I duck as more sea heads my way. When I look again Leo is crouched in the bottom of the boat. She later told me she'd slid off the seat and at that point was untying her boot laces in case she ended up in the sea. To port (notice the nautical terminology), uncomfortably close, there is a grey rocky cliff - the end of the promontory we'd have had to walk over had there been a path. To starboard, the large pleasure-boat, still playing pop music, scooshes along, swifter even than us, adding its wake to the turbulence of the open sea. I can see people looking at us, smiling. I have no spare energy to curse them.

I don't know how long this goes on. There is little to hold on to, and I am soaked. I have my hat clasped over my camera which is strapped to my chest; my poles are in my left hand and with my right I'm straining to keep hold of the plastic side of the hull (fibreglass?) I feel there is a strong possibility that I may throw up. Then the engine slows, and the sea stops coming in beside us: we are in Olu Deniz bay and the beach lies ahead. The beach ... sloping quite steeply into the waves, which are breaking enthusiastically, the beach where there is ... no sign of a jetty.

Before the significance of this can register, I become aware that our gallant rescuer, still unsullied and unsoaked in his sports jacket, is on his phone. And gradually, as we cruise in gentle circles just beyond the surf, we realise that he is negotiating our transfer to another boat, one with a prow gangplank that will let us land without risking his boat. The first to offer is rejected as being too high out of the water, with no scramble nets (come on, you're joking ...) but another, smaller craft is approaching. (I'm a strong swimmer. Would it be better to swim?)

Now I need you, dear, empathising reader, to picture this moment. You may have been lulled into imagining a boatload of fit, lithe forty-somethings having an adventure, but it's time for the reality check. There may be as many as four of us under the age of 60, though I doubt it. I know that at least three are 70 or over, and that the oldest is 75. Normal pensioners we are not - we have already hiked at least 40 miles of Turkish countryside over the past four and a bit days. But transferring from a small boat to a larger one in a lumpy sea is not easy, and this is a truly unpleasant moment.

I am in the last four to make the transfer, as we have been in the stern. I have just watched the oldest of our group, an indomitable Irish Californian woman, launch herself onto her belly on a table in the bigger boat. Now it's my turn. As our boat rises on a wave, our driver shouts "Go, lady!" I put my foot onto the side of the bigger boat, shove my poles ahead to give me two free hands, grab the rail of the big boat. At that moment, the speedboat - and my left foot, on which my weight is still balanced - drops a couple of feet and I am left stranded, hanging on like grim death, my right foot on the big boat, my rucksack pulling me back,  and my right knee bent at a tighter angle than it's experienced in a decade. I can see Mr B's anxious face suddenly vanish as he is pushed aside by some macho soul, then a young Turkish seaman grabs my belt and pulls and I find myself sprawled in the bar of the boat we've boarded.
Preparing to land

It isn't quite over - no sooner are we all aboard when the cry goes up that we've to remove our boots and prepare to enter the water. (After all that ...) The gangplank can't reach the beach, but is waving in the air about four feet out in the surf. So I end up edging along an increasingly slippy gangplank, now holding my boots and socks in one hand (along with my poles) and the rail of the gangway in the other. The Normandy landings flash into my mind as I take the hand of a seaman and jump - and find myself scrabbling up the shingly sand onto dry land.

And there, best beloved, I shall leave us, lying like beached whales in a row just above the surf line. It has not been what we signed up for, on this walking holiday, but I will admit one thing.

It makes for a great story ...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Exam stress? What exam stress?

I have a feeling that Scottish school pupils are sitting their English SQA exams today. If not, it was yesterday - we retired teachers become quite hazy about these once crucial dates - and, incidentally, I'd be fascinated to see what the new English exam paper looked like, if anyone reading this can tell me. But the discussion on the radio took me further back, as I was suddenly overcome with the sensation of being 17 and in the middle of my own Highers.

I am one of the age group who sat the very first Scottish O-Grade. Because I attended a selective senior secondary school, in the double-language stream, we were told that we would merely take such O-Grades as were deemed necessary for us individually, "in the by-going" as they said. No exam leave as such - just the day of the exam itself. We all sat Arithmetic; I also took the exams in Physics, Chemistry and Maths (not my best subjects, so an insurance policy) as well as Geography (which I would then drop until S6).

So my memory of being 17 actually slipped back to one day in S4, when I was 16. I think it may have been yesterday's sun that did it; I sat O-Grade Arithmetic on a glorious sunny morning in Hillhead High School and then I took off. I met my mother at Queen Street station at lunchtime - she coming from the school where she taught mornings, I fresh from the sums - and we hopped on a train to Edinburgh. There we climbed Salisbury Crags, sat in the sun, and went for our tea before the train home. It was my first taste of freedom.

And it was this freedom that came back to me as I listened to people recounting their exam horrors, the stress they were under, the nerves and the late night studying and the lack of sleep. I honestly remember nothing of these. I recall the freedom of being alone in the empty house with hours of study before me - for we did have exam leave in S5 - and the chance to do what I wanted when I wanted. As the sun moved round to the back garden I would take my chemistry notebook outside to swot equations (I never really understood chemistry, so everything had to be learned by rote. I scraped a Higher). I grew tanned and relaxed, though there was always some turquoise ink staining the hand I'd used to cover what I was learning. I'd take afternoons off and walk the half-hour or so to school for orchestra practice, sauntering in as the bell went at 4pm, enjoying seeing friends and adored music teachers as we rehearsed for the Glasgow Music Festival (unaccountably, this was always at the end of May, so we were actually working our butts off at the same time as studying; I actually found the tension of the Festival much worse than that produced by exams).

By the time I reached my last exams (what were they in S5? French? Chemistry?) I had been off school for perhaps a fortnight and was bored with my holiday. Yes, I did last-minute revision, but it never felt more than a kind of obligation. Maybe we'd been so rigorously pushed in class that we knew most of the stuff already. The Hamlet stuff I'd mugged up so assiduously went out of the window when I saw the question (about Shakespeare's tragic heroines - I ask you!) and switched regretfully to comedy with Twelfth Night; the Latin was its usual slightly worrying breeze of being finished almost an hour early (I never liked going over what I'd written in an exam). I always assumed, I think, that I'd pass - even in the subjects I was destined to scrape through I never believed I'd actually fail - and I was eager to get on with orchestra and end-of-term nonsense and being out in the sun with my pals. (Hillhead in these days had open corridors ...)

So my memories clashed happily with the programme on the radio as I wandered in and out of the sunny garden and felt 17 again. As to whether I'd care to be 17 again ... that's another matter.

Ah. There's something I forgot to mention: I experimented with cigarettes, in exam leave. Daring, huh?