Sunday, August 31, 2008

The antidote

And looking straight down
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
True to my blog, I headed for the hills yesterday afternoon. Mr B and I had long eyed an alluring-looking track pointing towards a hill which overlooks the head of Loch Striven, and despite the deterioration in the already gloomy day I decided this would be a suitable antidote to the Games in Dunoon.

As you will see from the photo, there's a good view from up there, and a satisfyingly steep slope to look down. It was an unedifying scramble to reach the summit - a short scramble, as the road itself is pretty high at that point, but one of these wrenching clambers through wet tussocks, slippery outcrops of rock, and sudden slithers of mud. By the time I was taking photos (with my phone - I hadn't thought there would be anything to photograph, given the weather) we were soaked from the thighs down and it was beginning to rain. I had attracted an alarming number of ticks - alarming because they were big enough to see as they crawled about looking for a tasty bite - and the midges gathered in clouds and stuck to our wet arms.

But there's a perverse enjoyment in this sort of thing, and despite having to feel our way down with the poles (always harder going down!) we bashed along the last section of track with vigour and felt pleased that we didn't seem to be at death's door as a result. We didn't even stop to put our waterproofs on - didn't seem worth it by then.

Now: what on earth is that hill called?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Haiku challenge

There's a new writing challenge over on Frying an Egg - a haiku challenge rather than a micro story. I have to say this is a form I'd never tried before, so it was fun to have a go. Join us!

Avoiding the Games

It's Cowal Games weekend. The sky is a uniform grey, though it is not actually raining. It has been thus for a week now, and there seems no reason to suppose the sun will ever reappear. The Firth is glassy calm, and there are more ferries than normal, though the Waverley has been and gone again. Even through closed double glazing, I can hear the sound of the pipes. At least I was not wakened by the bands marching up the street to the stadium; apparently the pipers have decided it's a mug's game to be soaked before they compete and have taken the sensible route - the bus - to the competitions.

If I were to open the windows, I would hear the unaccustomed noise of far too many people in the main street down the hill. Mercifully I can't actually see the main street, but ever since Thursday evening there has been this sense of restlessness, of voices in the night, of feet and talk. The cars have been diverted, and every street around the centre of town is choked with parked vehicles. Later today, there will be an eruption of bedlam, as if an invading horde were approaching, as every pipe band that ever was marches from the stadium to the pier playing its own selection of tunes. The effect is terrifying and the noise goes on for hours, punctuated by wild yells and cheers. Because I have on occasion been there to watch an infant Tosh leading a band down the road, I know that the cheers mean some drum major is chucking a pole about with unusual vigour and/or dexterity. And because I have been there I know that the miasma of the pipes will be all-pervading - the smell of the inside of thousands of bags.

This evening, I shall not be there. This afternoon I shall head for the hills. And on Monday, I shall once more venture down into the town which for now does not feel like home.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Father knows best?

Yesterday culminated in a strange audio conference which left me feeling completely brain-dead - though rather by the means than the content. Picture it: a Skype conference which had to be abandoned because of background noise on one mic which interfered with the speech on all the others - because only one Skyper can speak at a time. I ended up with the phone to one ear, the lone Skyper in the Mitchell Library in the other, typing notes to the skyper with one hand while trying to contribute sensibly to the discussion.

But the content too was strangely wearing. In a church which is relying more and more on the education of lay people to maintain standards and even a presence in rural areas, it seems to me vital that the education provided is efficient, relevant and cotemporaneous with the activity which requires it. And when much of the training is being given to people who have already coped with a working life, a family - and simply life, Jim - it seems unrealistic to insist that there is only one road to follow: that of academic accreditation through seminars and essay-writing.

I had a late-night listen to a conversation between Ewan and some Canadian educators (I'm a glutton for punishment) and was struck by his insistence that over-control of teaching and the perceived need to be seen to be producing something were in fact stultifying and got in the way of real learning. As a classroom practitioner, I have known this for many years, and realised that my increasing seniority (years, not position!) let me away with doing my own thing - because in the end my pupils shone.

I'm afraid that this controlling of the process is going to put people like me off, if it's allowed to prevail. I am not ever going to demand ordination, so the system is actually quite safe, but I'm enjoying the informal group learning that we're doing here in Dunoon and don't want to lose what we have. But if many clergy are still stuck with the "teacher/father knows best" format of teaching/training, we'll remain a wee pocket of forward-looking learning in a haze of important-sounding acronyms and accreditation by universities we never knew existed.

And maybe that will be just fine.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Recalling summer

I've posted the last of my Herefordshire poems from this summer. You can read it here. As I look out at the grey dampness of a bleak Scottish end-of-summer day, I can just feel the warmth of that garden where there was so much life.

The poem itself seemed to come out in a new form. Maybe I was infected by the sudden short rushes of the birds I was watching - the four stresses in each line certainly remind me of the moment. A warming remembrance on this greyest of afternoons.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Origami prayers

We did origami today instead of hearing a sermon. We made boats of which Rupert the Bear might have been proud and floated them in a font full of reeds. We thought of Moses and his nameless mother, and of the spark in our own lives. It was crazy and it worked.

I wrote about it here.

Widening horizons

Arran and clouds
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've lived in Cowal for the best part of 35 years. I've visited Bute maybe 10 times - but always to sing. I'd never been there to pursue my other passion, until Friday. We blew £13 on taking our car on the two-minute ferry crossing from Colintraive and used the resulting freedom to explore a great circular walk in the south of the island, with the focal point the mediaeval chapel of St Blane.

The chapel itself is remarkable, hidden away among huge trees in a fertile cup of land, sheltered from the sea and prying eyes - though Vikings apparently destroyed the Celtic monastery which orginally stood on the site. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves for a good half hour.

Apart from this unique purpose, the walk itself was glorious. Some of the path along the shore reminded me of the Arran shore north of Blackwaterfoot, while the last section, through fields (and cows!) was more like Herefordshire. And it was amazing to feel at once part of Ayrshire - looking at Cumbrae from a new standpoint - and the Highlands: the Highland Boundary fault has a profound effect.

So I've done it - and now I see why people go on holidays to Bute. I can go there in an hour and be home for tea. I'll be back ...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Archbishop and the devil

I was listening to ++Rowan on the radio this evening (actually it was a recording from yesterday, I think) talking about Dostoyevsky. Seems the good Archbishop has written a book on the subject, just to keep his mind off the church. What struck me was how different he sounded from the person I've heard trying to explain some theological point for the masses or to defend the Anglican Communion against the onslaughts of the press. This Rowan Williams sounded relaxed, confident, fluent - and a joy to listen to.

What do we do to people when we make them archbishops, bishops, whatever? Seems to me that anyone in the hot seat is bound to be castrated by the position - that they have to put their intellect on hold or use it to wriggle out of answering crass questions or to craft ever more byzantine compromises.

One point which arose from the discussion itself concerned the function of evil in the world. Dostoyevsky's devil apparently claims (I haven't read any Dostoyevsky) that without him - ie without evil - the world would cease to exist. I didn't find ++Rowan's explanation of this convincing or particularly lucid: anyone like to enlarge on the topic?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Horticultural poem

There's a new poem over at frankenstina - one of two that came of a desire to capture all that was happening in the wonderful garden of our friends in Herefordshire. Photos do it, up to a point, but there was so much around me that words seemed necessary.

There is one more poem from this holiday - I'll get round to it soon!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Boats and bumf

Just back from waving Neil off on the ferry, I was recalling similar scenes from childhood – not in Dunoon, but at Brodick pier. If you are sufficiently aged, you may be able to picture this. There are people on the pier dressed for holidays on Arran – knee-length shorts (navy or khaki) with long socks on middle-aged men was the dead giveaway that they were not boarding the ferry yet. They would be there to see off visitors who might have stayed over a weekend, sharing their rented cottage, or perhaps a family member whose holiday didn’t extend to a month and who was returning to an office for the week (back on Friday, on the “Fathers’ Boat”). The shorted men would be accompanied by women and children in variants of holiday attire – anything from waterproofs to summer dresses or “slacks”.

As the boat – usually the evening boat – prepared to sail, the people left waving farewell would produce toilet rolls, which in these days were of the strong, slippery variety well-suited to their intended purpose, and throw them at the departing ferry. The skilled among them would hold them in such a way that they retained one end while the friend on board would catch the unravelling roll and chuck it back, holding in turn their end of this streamer of bumf. And so it was that the ferry sailed, with the symbolic breaking of the bonds of bumf as the gap between ship and pier increased.

It may be that I have a slightly misleading detail in there, for it was always said that the bumf-chuckers half-inched the toilet rolls from boarding house loos, so perhaps they came from boarding houses rather than cottages such as the one we lived in for our hols. We tended to look down our noses at such vulgar display – though I recall a surge of delight when a heartily lobbed roll vanished down a funnel.

This exuberant ritual no longer accompanies the departure of the ferries, as far as I know - but then maybe Dunoon didn't have quite the same sense of the remote that an island can bring. Whatever the reason, I was not hurling streamers of Andrex after the departing 5.50 boat this evening. I hope no-one was disappointed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Worth a look

I'm indebted to Neil for this - take a look till I stop chatting to him and find time to write something.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A real poet

I was rooting around in links the other day - probably chasing up accounts of +Gene's visit to Scotland last week - when I came across this on The Herald's site. Edwin Morgan reads some poems he wrote recently in response to some well-known paintings - the best known probably the Dali Christ of St John of the Cross, a painting I grew up knowing through frequent visits to Kelvingrove Art Galleries.

Though his speech is now slurred by the stroke he suffered last year, Morgan's voice is still recognisable as that of the first real poet I ever met, when he lectured to my Ordinary English class at Glasgow Uni in the 60s, and the poems are as telling as ever. I am indebted to this real poet for encouraging me in my writing, and heartened to realise he's as sharp as ever despite failing health and confinement in a nursing home.

Read and enjoy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New poem on Llananno

There's a new poem on frankenstina - the first of three resulting from my recent trip to Herefordshire. One of the lovely features of these visits is the interest I and my hosts share in poetry, spirituality, old churches and books, so that when we're not tramping the Welsh border hills together (and talking non-stop) we find ourselves sharing intense silence in a lost church - or I find myself sitting in their exquisite garden with a pile of poetry and fiction. And it is this gentle urging to read new poetry which gets me going again - a clear pointer if ever there was one to the need for input.

Llananno is the church I referred to in an earlier post, where R.S. Thomas liked to sit in the same silence as inspired my poem, the central image of which was written in a moment as I sat there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wrestling with Rowan

There's a good post here on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog, on how Anglicans who don't happen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury might deal with what the Archbishop himself comes out with. Read and comment away while my brain recovers from a morning of wrestling with the doctrine of Salvation.

I shall return when my brain is working again...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Walking on water?

I’m writing this on Sunday morning, watching Edublogger’s latest keynote – or second latest or whatever – and growing slightly concerned by the realisation that I’m preaching in just over an hour and I haven’t delivered the sermon to the mirror, or even timed it. I usually do this, but I’ve had friends staying for the past three days and time has flown, in talking, walking and – inevitably – catering.

I have been thinking about this sermon, however, for the past three weeks (that’s when I found out it was my turn). And for once, almost all of my subject-matter is my own – either self-generated or springing from conversation with Kimberly – with one theological area which was new to me but which made something else fall into place.

And where does Ewan’s video come into it? Well, I still hanker after the ease with which I used to teach my own subject – that total familiarity which allowed for a rapport with my students and the chance that I too might enjoy the experience. The audience in the video is an adult one, as mine will be in – woops – an hour. I have my bullet points, and the full script as backup. But I know that something vital to the process will be missing.

No-one will put their hand up. No-one will volunteer an answer to a rhetorical question. no-one will burst out laughing – though that will probably be because I’ll be inhibited too. And no-one really imagines that I have any authority to be telling them anything.

I’m an English teacher, not a theologian. I’m a good teacher, I have expertise in language and literature – but few people recognise that there is skill involved here. I’m perfectly happy talking to adults, but I’d find a crowd at a demonstration less challenging than a tiny congregation who have known me for years. And so I’ll stick to my bullet-points and not make any asides, and I hope I’ll not be boring and that maybe – just maybe – some Good News will seep through the cracks.

Here we go.

Footnote: I've often said that we of the Lay Team should be subjected to the equivalent of a student teacher's Crit Lesson - a Mystery Worshipper sort of thing. Today I had my MW in the shape of the Primus. Beware of what you ask for ....

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Not bedtime reading

Just been reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a book which I borrowed on my recent trip south and soon realised was not the bedtime reading I needed. This is the author's first book, and apparently the first to be written in English by an Afghan, and the writing delivers the insights into life in Afghanistan with telling directness. But the insights into the narrator's childhood perceptions and the horrifying results for himself and his friendship with the boy closest to him are such as to grip and repel simultaneously, so that my need to discover what lay ahead vied with the grim inevitability of the outcome.

This is a story of friendship, betrayal and redemption, beautifully told. It is also a window into a world which was changing even as I realised it existed - with the Russian occupation, and the subsequent horror of the Taliban. It tells of moderation and worldliness in a country which became synonymous with religious and social repression, and points up the plight of the asylum seeker in a strange land. It disturbs and provokes. I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Anger recollected in tranquillity

I went nowhere near the place on Sunday's opening service. The ever-anxious leadership had provided the Cathedral security guards with a large photo of me, posted at the security checkpoints, presumably to keep me from "crashing the gates" of the opening service. No one believed that I would be true to my promise to the Archbishop not to attend.

I took the above from Canterbury Tales from the Fringe, Bishop Gene's blog, which I've been following throughout the Lambeth Conference. As a result, I was less surprised than my companions, less shocked, when he alluded to this absurd criminalisation in his sermon on Sunday, because I'd had time to absorb the information. But seeing him, listening to his calm voice as he described this dreadful treatment at the hands of fellow-Christians, I found myself becoming angry.

And so I want to know this: did the Archbishop of Canterbury know that this had been done? If he didn't know, then whose bright idea was it? Some uppity/anxious/over-zealous steward? And when he found out, if he didn't know before, did ++Rowan send an apology? Or is he going to do so now that he's got the conference out of the way?

I found myself remembering "wanted" posters: have you seen this man? - posters to identify criminals. Or the kind of document provided at Customs points to prevent criminals/terrorists/drug-smugglers from entering/leaving the country. And then I looked again at a little man with a brave smile and a refusal to be beaten, and I didn't know whether to rage or weep.

Probably both.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Gene Robinson in Glasgow

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I skipped the service at Holy Trinity today, along with the organist (aka Mr B) and the only soprano you can hear behind a bus ticket (aka Mrs Heathbank) and took myself off to my native city to receive communion at a Eucharist presided over by Bishop Gene Robinson. Who he? Well, I know there are some of you out there who aren’t Anglicans, but he’s the only bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion who was barred from attending the Lambeth Conference which is just ending – because he’s gay and lives with another man and doesn’t lie about it.

It was great. You can hear his sermon (and see it) here – thanks to the techno-tendencies of the Provost. And you can read me saying that it felt really good to hear a bible-based sermon which openly addressed the whole inclusiveness thing, not in guarded words for those who know the code, but up front and powerfully. And I felt proud to be a member of the Scottish church which provided the altar of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow for +Gene to celebrate the Eucharist – because he wasn’t allowed to do this in England. At the end of the service, the entire congregation (a big one) rose to applaud this little man who has been through so much at the hands of fellow-Christians. Did it make a difference? I’d say it did. It ran a coach and horses through the prevaricating stuff I’ve just heard on the evening news as the last word from Lambeth, because this was real, this was blessing and celebration and being part of the body of Christ in a meaningful way.

And you know what else was great? The people who turned up. Like blogger Mad Priest: I realise I’d got into the habit of thinking of him as a willowy sap in a high clerical collar and a cassock – wrong, wrong! (His blog has just frozen Firefox for the umpteenth time and caused me to rewrite this post, but I shall forgive him and continue to read him on my feed reader). I know now that if people address me as Chris then it’s because they know me through this blog, and that’s exciting too. I’ve kept up with Bishop Gene’s blog during Lambeth, so in a way I feel I know him better too, even though we didn’t meet.

So, a good day. I’ll take one sentence from +Gene’s sermon which inspired me:
“Let’s continue to be God’s people and let God worry about the Church”. But today the Church – or at least the part of it worshipping in the Cathedral – felt as if God didn’t need to worry quite so much. Not today, anyway.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Light and darkness

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I'm off tomorrow to St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow; +Gene Robinson will be celebrating and preaching there. It's an occasion which makes me proud of our Scottish Episcopal Church and our Primus, and I'm looking forward to the Eucharist on all sorts of levels.

And the picture? I couldn't resist it. I took it the other evening as we waited for the ferry at McInroy's Point; the Cal Mac ferry looks as if it's under fire from an alien spaceship, surrounded by apocalyptic clouds. Actually the clouds were pretty impressive, as Blairmore vanished in a thick rainstorm which presumably counted towards its reputation as the wettest village in the area. And the sea was like molten fire - absolutely amazing.

And on another level, I think this photo is symbolic of what is happening in the SEC at the moment. Work it out!

Friday, August 01, 2008


Hands at work
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Sometimes I wish I did something concrete, something which had a solid presence. Writing seems ephemeral, singing even more so. These hands belong to an artist I spoke to in Dore Abbey, in Herefordshire. She took up working in stone in her retirement, and now has more commissions than she can keep up with. She told me how satisfying it felt - as well as sharing the very up-to-date method she has to rectify any errors, such as the wrong date or a mis-spelling, using stone dust and superglue.

She also, however, sings tenor in a quartet at evensong in her own church. We shared thoughts on the range of women's voices and the effects of aging. She was a remarkably serene and self-aware person, with a humorously self-deprecating manner. As we talked, a choir began to rehearse for a performance that evening. One of them had asked me outside if we'd be around for their performance. "We're very good," she asserted, firmly.

They weren't.