Monday, December 31, 2007

And it's goodbye ...

Christmas wrapped up
Originally uploaded by Edublogger. my granddaughter, to her parents (house feeling rather empty), to 2007 (I hate Hogmanay) and to one or two other bits of my life so far, to which I shall return in a mo. But first, I'm going to do what other bloggers do, and look back at what's happened in the past year.

First, of course, there was our American odyssey, a trip I still look back on in some wonder, from which I learned that Scotland is even smaller than I thought and that there are many, many people for whom it doesn't exist. I was Lay Rector of a Cursillo weekend. And most importantly and life-changeingly, Catriona arrived , late enough to keep up the family tradition of cutting it fine.

Apart from all that, I wrote a few more poems, in a sudden burst of ... whatever it is that makes poems happen, and had the strange experience of hearing a carol originally written with me in mind ( and some of my words) sung in front of a huge audience in a very famous venue.

But maybe the greatest change happened in the past week, when the presence of very young babies at both the Christmas morning mass and the day on which we read about the slaughter of the innocents put all ritual and all dogma into the shade and brought home the liveliness of love which lies at the heart of the Incarnation. I used to be totally hooked on all the ritual and colour of a high Anglican service - but if it lacks humanity and love it conveys nothing of the God who came to us in human form.

I shall still look for beauty, and for the music to be in tune - but ritual is made to be disrupted, and we have to be able to laugh with the angels. So here's to all the babies who made Christmas special - and reminded us where we started. Till next year ...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Big deal?

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've been reflecting on how it felt to sit in a famous venue like the Royal Albert Hall and hear Mr B's work performed to an audience of 5,000 (you can see a selection of them in the photo). I had my own small stake in the piece, having adapted the words of two of the verses from the translation of the Gaelic, so I too had my name announced before they sang. And yes, it was exciting - especially in anticipation - and yes, I felt proud.

But mostly, you know, it felt like any other gig. And I wonder if this is the point about this performance thing. If you do perform, an audience is an audience whether there are 50, 500 or 5,000 people in it, and it's important to perform well to them. The strange familiarity of having Jonathan out there doing the biz - instead of having him play for us on Cumbrae - had an effect on the novelty of the venue, and this was reinforced by the familiar ambiance of the somewhat spartan environment o the Artists' Bar at the end of the show.

So yes - it was a great evening, but the next audience will be, I think, every bit as important. Mind - it'd be a blast if 5,000 tried to squeeze into our wee church!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Banking blues

My post-Christmas sloth has been disrupted by an outbreak of bank rage. An oversight on my part has left me with an unpaid credit card bill - and a whopping £59 in additional charges which all seem to be variations on the theme of "Late Fee" and which strike me as ludicrously draconian in the age of electronic banking. I have not yet been able satisfactorily to ascertain why the Bank of Scotland waited over two weeks to write the letter which informed me that they had returned a debit unpaid; if I had received the letter when they didn't pay it I could have dealt with the matter in plenty of time and all would have been fine. And it seems mighty strange that when all the parties concerned are in the BoS network they behave as if they didn't know what was going on - and stranger still that, despite my having made the necessary payment, my card account is still coming up as being in arrears. Why does electronic banking seem to take as long to work as it would if I sent a cheque by second class post?

A visit to my local bank bears no relation to the experience of computerised voices, button pressing and call-centre indifference - but still the letters come and the rage rises. And all because I set up a direct debit to make sure I never forgot to pay my bills. Ironic, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
What a terrific atmosphere we had in church this Christmas morning! I personally love the Midnight Mass, the darkness, the candles, the incense - but this morning, with the sunlight outside dimming the candle-flames, was the most perfect Christmas morning service I've attended in years. Why? Because we had half our family, including our baby granddaughter, with us. The effect on the otherwise elderly congregation was wonderful - not least because Catriona was at her most captivating and barely made a cheep throughout the entire proceedings.

I suspect there was a fair amount of substitution going on as we sang of babes in the manger, tender infants and so on - it was hard not to think we were singing of the baby in our midst. But maybe we were right. There was a real sense in which the miracle of the Incarnation was underlined by this smiling child who gazed at us as we sang, gurgled happily at the candles, and snored quietly during the sermon - and by the palpable happiness in the church and the warmth of the smiles of friend and stranger.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Some gig!

Second half
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
We've been off gadding, Mr B and I - to London, just before Christmas. Normally we wouldn't choose precisely this time for such a trip, but on Saturday evening an arrangement by Mr B of The Christ Child's Lullaby was being given an airing at one of the huge "come and join in" carol events sponsored by Raymond Gubbay and we felt it was too much to miss. A carol which was first sung in Dunoon by the late lamented Hesperians, re-emerged in Cumbrae at a carol service years later and caught the ear of Jonathan Cohen now appeared in an enlarged and revamped version sung by a large, miked-up group of theatre singers - in front of an audience of some 5, 000 in a packed Albert Hall.

What an evening! The atmosphere was terrific, the performances polished and glitzy. We joined in the singing and the Mexican waves - though it has to be said the latter grew somewhat tedious - and I was fascinated by the odd acoustics of the hall which made it feel as if I was the only person singing. Apparently this affects the performers too - one end of the choir unable to hear the other - and I was very aware of the huge size of the auditorium. But the evening was simply the greatest fun, with great waves of bonhomie all round. And it was nothing like anything I've ever experienced live before.

The journey home yesterday was long - our train north as well as the Gourock train seemed to stop at every lamppost - and ended with the bumpy last Cal Mac ferry and the unglamorous trail up Ferry Brae, dragging our cases up the hill in the teeth of the rising wind. We knew we were well and truly home when the rain began shortly after we got in. After the atmospherically chilly fog of London, it came as quite a rude reminder.

And now I'm off to sing with a crowd of maybe 40, if we're lucky - but I wouldn't miss our own brand of Christmas for anything. Not even the Albert Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

In transit

This is more like it! After an absolutely perishing train between Gourock and Glasgow we find the toasty comfort of Virgin's 1st class much more our style. Cheers!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


How important it is to get it right for a funeral! And how difficult at this time of year - or is it? Especially if the person who has died was suffering, or had obviously felt that their time had come - for then a late Advent funeral can be full of a whole range of emotions. I was at a funeral today, and yes, it was well done. There was a great sense of peace in the church, and the utter tradition of the graveyard seemed fitting as the low sun slanted through the trees in the Bishop's Glen and a single bird called from behind the church. And because one of the organ pieces played before the service was the trigger for a poem I wrote last year, I repeat it here:


The days that followed your quiet end
were filled with bright, hard-shadowed light
and cold cut drily to the bones
and froze the tears as yet unwept.
The world seemed lit as if a stage
which you had left, your part discharged,
and music played like distant bells
heard on the road beneath the stars.
Was it to set the music free
you turned away from struggle then?
For if you chose the path you took
you left this lightness like a gift
with which we joined the search of those
who brought the myrrh, and bring it still.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Abigail revisited

I've just been seduced into watching, for the umpteenth time, the wonderfully awful Abigail's Party (Mike Leigh, 1977). Actually, I think I've only once seen it all the way through - because in many ways it's too painful to watch. I expect this is partly an age thing - these tight suits with the wide lapels and flared trousers, the big ties which appeared to throttle their owner were a feature of early married life chez Blethers, though I drew the line at the awful voluminous dress worn by Beverly (Alison Steadman, in pic). And these dire parties where the grapefruit stuck with cocktail sticks of pineapple, cheddar and cocktail onions - who ever thought that a reasonable combination? And everyone knocking back the booze and becoming sillier and sillier, and always someone in the loo throwing up - it was always such a relief to get home again, and yet we persisted.

Of course the toe-curling joy of this play lies in the dialogue, consisting almost entirely of vapid platitudes and attempts at small-talk. Beverly in particular addresses everyone as if they were a half-witted child, while her doomed husband tries desperately to maintain a veneer of sophistication. It's a play which makes me thankful for serious conversation and intelligent friends - and the joy of going home at the end of an evening sober.

Or, come to think of it, an evening spent blogging.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Week at the knees

It was my turn to read the lessons in church today. I love reading, especially these wonderful prophetic passages from Isaiah which you find in Advent. Now I have to confess that today I hadn't checked who was reading until I was on the point of leaving the house, so I had no time to prepare; just a cursory glance at the lectern to make sure the bible was open at the correct place. So here I was, enjoying the rolling sentences, when I came to this bit: Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

All very right and proper, you may say. We should indeed be girding our loins for the coming of Christ. But I was smitten by a terrible mirth. Mr B, you see, has been complaining for some time of what may turn out to be cartilage trouble - but which in Biblical terms could well be described as "feeble knees". I am proud to say that I didn't corpse; I don't think there was even a noticeable tremor in my voice. But I'm glad my pal Di wasn't there. She'd have laughed for sure. And that, I fear, would have finished me.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Robin ...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
There is nothing, I've decided, more likely to bring about the folding of time, the telescoping of the past 12 months into - oh, I dunno: a week or something - than decorating the Christmas tree. I suppose it's because I still use many of the decorations I've had since the first tree of our married lives: the star I made from tinsel and wire because I realised too late that we didn't have one and now can't bear to replace, the fragile glass baubles that you can't buy any more (you can see my favourite in the bottom right corner of the photo). That robin, even, though I consider him a relative newcomer, actually came to roost when Neil was a small boy, and his little wire feet are decidedly twisted now. I haven't bought any new tinsel in ages because I don't like the furry brashness of the stuff on sale, and I was sad to note that a golden glittery tassel - one of a set of four - which I bought in 1972 has begun to unravel.

There is, however, one ritual in particular which makes time vanish. Every year, before I start draping them on the tree, I plug in the lights to check they're still working. They are. And it's a bit of a miracle, really. For they, dear readers, are even older than the glycerine I mentioned the other day. I bought them in 1970, little Pifco bells. They don't glare, they don't flicker in a migraine-inducing ashion, and they're all different colours. And no, I don't leave them on when I'm not around.

Just in case!

Note: I don't really like doing the tree so early in the month, but the forest shop has a tendency to run out and leave you with the choice of a monster or a lopsided dwarf. And once it's here ...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arthur & George

I've just finished reading Julian Barnes' book Arthur & George. Normally when telling people how to write a decent critical essay I'd tell them to include the genre of the piece under discussion in this opening sentence, but I'm slightly foxed by this one. It's based on what happened when a young lawyer of mixed Parsee/Scottish parentage (the George of the title) was imprisoned for what seemed like a very unlikely crime and on his release had his case investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The writing is wonderfully polished, the observation acute, the insights fascinating. It has all the hallmarks of fiction - the direct speech, the glimpses into unspoken thoughts, even the omniscience on the part of the author that can annoy if one is looking for a constant perspective, or even a two-way split as suggested by the title. And yet it is not fiction, insofar as the story is concerned. I think this is why I felt somewhat stranded by the conclusion, even though the narrative in the closing pages is among the most gripping of the whole book.

However, most of the time I felt involved in a Holmesian mystery - and found that the parallel lives offered respite to a reader who tends to fall asleep in mid-page, in that the chapters, especially in the early stages, are brief and let us gradually come to know Arthur and George as they grow up. And even when we feel we know George in this fashion, there is always something not told - so the outcome is by no means predictable.

And the insights into the famous author's personal life are revelatory!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cats, mice and glycerine

I'm indebted to Mrs Tosh for drawing my attention to this wonderful video of a genetically modified mouse playing happily round the feet of a bemused mog. Apparently genetic engineers shut down sensors in the mouse's olafactory bulb (sounds very strange) so that it didn't shriek at the smell of cat. I hate to think what effect such modification would have at the Rectory.

Before coming across this wonderful bit of scientific dabbling, I was having a wee scientific reflection myself - about the nature of glycerine. Every year since 1973 I have made and iced my own Christmas cake, and every year I have used the same bottle of glycerine. I seem to recall having read somewhere that glycerine is chemically inert, which perhaps explains its long sojourn in my larder. As the bottle is only half done, I reckon it'll see me out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


An interesting little chain cropped up the past couple of weeks in the world of statins, the wonder drug for lowering cholesterol. Highland Health Board apparently instructed all the GPs in their area (which, dear reader, includes Dunoon these days) to change the prescription of all their patients currently on statins to one Simvastatin. Dutifully, GPs sent out letters enclosing a new prescription with the info that this from now on would be what they'd get. They dressed it up politely, of course, but it read pretty finally. And it was only if you were savvy enough and pushy enough to complain that you would be able to go on taking the drugs which suited you and to which you had become accustomed. (The letter didn't say this, of course, but it is so.) My pic is of one of the varieties which have fewer disagreeable effects.

Yesterday's Herald carried a piece about statins which contained the following statement:
A recent study of statins by US scientists linked one such drug, simvastatin, to sleep disruption that they claimed could lead to aggression and weight gain. One of the cheapest statins on the market, simvastatin is used by more than one million Britons and is available over the counter under the name Zocor Heart-Pro.
The mind boggles at the thought of the Highlands being over-run by aggressive, overweight insomniacs. I shall not be joining them.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Sunset reflections
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Looking back on yesterday's carol service, two very different reflections - one mine, the other from a total stranger. Mine first, though. And this was how strange it was to hear a poem of mine read by someone else - for yesterday was only the second time this has happened to me. Suddenly something intensely personal takes on its own life - grows up, if you like - and heads off into the world in the manner of your child going off to school holding someone else's hand. Furthermore, because another person reads with different phrasing, the words take on a different resonance, so that yesterday I heard something new, even though I knew it was coming. The first time this happened, some years ago, I didn't know that the person leading the meditation was going to use a piece of mine, and I found myself thinking "this is very familiar - I wonder who wrote it"...

The second feedback of the day came in a chance meeting in the street, when a woman whose husband had attended the service reported to Mr B that he had enjoyed the singing immensely - but that it was of course a younger choir than was usual in Dunoon, with young voices. And I thought of our group, reading glasses and all, average age pushing 60 - and smiled.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Candlelight and darkness. Music, words, silence. The Advent Carol Service at Holy Trinity was filled with a real sense of expectation - the advent expectation that is so distinct from the celebration of Christmas. Such was the matching of readings to readers, such the mystery of the music which is God's highway, that the listeners seemed to have stopped breathing. Even the dog lying at the feet of its owner - someone who hadn't even known the service was to happen, who had been spirited in, dog and all, at the end of an afternoon walk - made no sound. As Merton's words had it, intellects ...quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

And at the end, how joyful we all seemed, greeting one another at the back of the church over mulled wine and mince pies! We do things in style on our damp hill - and at moments such as these, our poverty matters not a bit. We are wealthy beyond reason.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mrs Blethers, I presume?

I can't resist blogging this historic meeting. Ewan and I have never managed to meet on Second Life until this evening, and here we are! Not that we had much to say - the background music from the pub inhibited using voice, and then he vanished to go and replace his battery - but I was amused to see how like his FL self he looks. Maybe it's an age thing - the avatars I meet who are of my generation in FL are infinitely more way-out looking. Why wear a T shirt and jeans when you can have wings, I say - though my avatar and I do have a pink streak in common.

We're standing in the rotunda where the Edublogs awards ceremony will shortly begin. I'll update later.

Update: No win this time - but a very odd experience to have so many people there that the sim was closed. The sound quality was intermittently excellent but broke up completely at times, and the time lag for actions and text was pronounced. And if I were to comment on the proceedings, I'd say they were unnecessarily bumbling - it was very hard to make out who had won what with all that low-key announcing and lack of reprise.

Can't see how SL can progress as a tool until it can accommodate more than a handful of people at a time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Shopping spree

Donald Dewar
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A visit to Glasgow is always interesting, whether because of the improbable amount of cash one can get through or the sights and sounds of my native city. Today it was a bit of both. We were leaving the car park (Cambridge Street - wildly expensive if you stay beyond 2 hours) when we overheard a woman talking into a mobile. "No, I'm not happy." "I'm not going to fall out with you. See you next week." The woman must've been my age, I'd say. Friend? Lover? Fascinating.

And then to Fazzi's for a quick expresso. Two pretty girls serving, three tables occupied with people wanting tea or coffee - nothing fancy. Fifteen minutes after we'd ordered I asked if the coffee was on its way; pg1 looked positively hurt. Good coffee, when it came, but sloooow. And there was no loo paper in the Ladies. Has Fazzi's changed hands or merely slipped sadly downhill?

And finally, brethren, there was a street evangelist, right at Donald Dewar's green feet. He was thundering, somewhat repetitively, against all those who were "shacked up together". God has it in for them, big style, apparently. Three girls passed, giggling at his fervour. For a suicidal moment I considered a bit of heckling, but Mr B was pressing on and sense prevailed. He was still at it, on a different pitch, after our long and bibulous lunch.

Actually that wasn't all. There were the beggars, like the kneeling woman. I've seen her on several occasions - she kneels stock still in the street with her hands cupped as if to receive communion. She's amazingly still. I don't know if people give her anything, just as I don't know what kind of life the children have whom I saw playing accordions in the street with a man who could have been their father. They were very accomplished, and the smaller must have been about 8 years old. And I contrasted their chilly labours with the hilarity we enjoyed buying baby books.

Shops overheated and full of shiny things, and cold and disappointment outside. A God of anger and punishment proclaimed in streets where buskers play jolly carols under the lights. People anxiously spending in the celebration of ... what? And over it all, Donald Dewar's statue calmly watching through his now restored specs. You don't get the same perspective, somehow, when you shop online...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Another poem

I've just posted a new poem over on frankenstina. It was written after midnight one night last week, when I was overcome with the complex syntax and scrupulous attention to detail in a passage from a book by Michael Ramsey. Usually I would enjoy reading such material, but at that time of night, and overcome with the demands of the season on both church musician and domestic goddess - you will recall that at times I am both - I couldn't cope.

Sometimes, in fact, I believe that God-talk demands poetry: language so filled with potential that the spaces between the words are full of angels. The sceptic would say this is a cop-out, but the sceptic presumably has never heard the angel-song.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Slanglican match

Goodness, these folks over at Anglicans Online have fairly come over all petted about the Anglican Cathedral on Second Life. Their patronising tone can be sussed by this statement:"We've no quarrel with groups of Anglicans choosing to mess about in SL", and they nail their Web 1.0 credentials firmly to the mast thus: "We've been messing about on the net since the late 1960s, when one of us helped build it". Maybe that's just it. Maybe they got stuck with it.

You can read the response of the SL community here. It's a pity such a widely-read site should be so curmudgeonly, but maybe it's to be expected. What, I wonder, do they fear?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Of poetry

I've been having an interesting exchange with BiL about a couple of the poems I've published recently. Of course I'm used to explaining why a poet does this or that - it was part of my job for long enough - but doing this about my own work throws up some new experiences. There was a time when I'd go off and try reworking a line because of a comment or question, but recently I've found that I'm quite sure that I've written what I want to and can explain it as confidently as if it were some well-known text. But how do I know? Well partly it's a result of study and reading a great deal of poetry with an eye for the poet's technique; partly it's an inner ear thing - the thing which has me scribbling out and redrafting as I work on a piece.

Another interesting aspect of the last few weeks has been the reappearance of the need to write after several totally arid months. One poem about my new grandchild - my total output over the whole summer - wasn't exactly white-hot creativity, and yet in the run-up to Advent I've found myself responding to a range of emotions in poetry, including one which I stuck on the back of a scrap of paper one night when I should have been tranquilly preparing for sleep. (This had me so energised that I lay awake till 3am - not a good idea) I have no idea if it'll last, this outburst, but it's great while it does. I've not even been to Second Life since Friday!

And a virtual Mars Bar for the first to spot the homage of the title of this post.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I rather like this picture, taken as the male voices of the ad hoc choir for Cumbrae's Advent Carols rehearsed and I wandered about listening to them and experimenting with my camera. It conveys some of the feelings I have about Advent - the darkness, the pools of light, the afternoon already dimming in the short December day. I was powerfully reminded of my first experiences of the Episcopal Church, here in this place in the late 1960s, as we sang "Let all mortal flesh keep silence", one of my favourite hymns and one which I had never heard before coming to Cumbrae. Music, darkness, light: all powerful stimuli to memory - and to something else, something at the very heart of Advent.

I shall be posting a new poem for Advent in two blogs: frankenstina and love blooms bright, where there are already two lovely Advent posts. Do visit!

Light in the darkness

Sanctuary candles
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The season of Advent begins tomorrow - though the date of this post shows Sunday has already begun. Despite the sudden outbreak of premature Christmas lights, trees and garlands everywhere from the cafe in East Enders to the seafront in Largs to the shore road in Dunoon, this is a special time of waiting in the dark of winter for the light of the Incarnation. This photo was taken today in the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae, a special place with its own vision of hope, where we were rehearsing for tomorrow's Advent Carol Service.

It is not only through music that I shall be marking the season, though goodness knows there will be plenty of that. Do visit the new blog, love blooms bright, where a group of bloggers will be contributing their own reflections on a daily basis from Monday. This is the brain-child of Kimberly, and it promises well.

And for those who are bamboozled by the colours of the candles in our Advent wreath, you can find an explanation here