Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I've written of this before, when I was singing to that lively three-year-old in the background (can't help feeling it wouldn't work now, but I'll return to that). This time I sang another lullaby, Watts' Cradle Song, to an American (I think) tune arranged by Mr B for our women's choir, 8+1. The melody is in the alto range, and I've had it on the brain for the past few weeks. The words were somewhat random , as I'm hopeless at remembering them, but phrases like "here's no ox about thy bed" seemed suitably soothing, and after gazing intently at me as I sang, Anna's eyes drooped and in no time at all she was sound asleep. She was sitting in this upright position, too, so the sense of communication was very real - until she flopped. I continued singing quietly as I put her to bed, and that was that.
I can't stress how important I think this live singing is for young children. It's not the same when nursery rhymes, lullabies and so on are played on CDs or - worse - distorted by electronic toys. The vibration, the tailoring of volume to the moment, the possibility for variety - these all contribute to what is, after all, as old as the hills.
Incidentally, big sister still loves to sing - though she does give me a row for using the traditional words as the end of Mary had a baby. You can't please all the people all of the time ...
Friday, December 24, 2010
Because I do feel strange. I find it disconcerting to be packing a suitcase and trying to remember shoes as well as boots (for the socialising, you know), to be stressing about catching the first ferry in the morning and hoping the fog doesn't return. Instead of looking tidy and prepared, the house is its usual slightly random self, with the addition of a Christmas tree (above) and cards on every available flat surface (another casualty of our straitened workforce; I lost the will to hang them on their holders). I'm cooking nothing other than tonight's dinner, and have a relatively empty fridge in anticipation of a visit to Tesco on the way home.
But first there's Midnight Mass, with incense, candles, carols, that lovely bit of Liszt on the organ, singing with other musicians - all the things I love and which keep me here when I could already be relaxing with my family. I shall not feel as joyous rising at 7ish when I've been in bed well after 2am; hence this moment snatched from organising myself to relax over a blether. But now I must make sure I've packed ...
Happy Christmas when it comes - and let's hear it for Western Ferries!
Thursday, December 23, 2010
I was looking for an illustration to this post when I came upon this story. Apparently the BBC production which has just ended, The Nativity, is being attacked as being anti-Jewish. I didn't clock that, but after wondering early in the week if this drama was going to work, despite the appealing casting of Mary and the atmospheric setting, I found tonight's climax extremely moving and well done.
I suppose the difficulty is that the story is so well known. How do you explore the characters of people who have been household names for 2,000 years? And we know the ending, don't we? How do you surprise and grip an audience with the best known story in the Western world? (I think I'm being careful here). In the end, I think they did it by concentrating on the humanity of Mary and Joseph, on Mary's extreme youth and Joseph's understandable misgivings. All these dreams - who among us wouldn't say "It was only a bad dream" and sulk off? Did you not find yourself begging Joseph to take Mary's hand as she begged him? Did you not sit up in your seat and will them to find somewhere to stay, even though you knew they would? Suffer through that labour in the filth of the stable? Smile "At last" as Joseph reached for Mary at the moment of birth?
There were moments that took me outside the circle of the drama: I couldn't take that quietly-spoken Irish Gabriel, and I wanted wings like drifted snow and eyes as flame, not to mention the heavenly host. I kept spotting Tucker under the admirable strength of one of the Magi, and I marvelled at the awfulness of Herod with his pale eyes and the ghastly sweating illness that perhaps Art Malik might have cured if he'd still been at Holby City. But these are the dangers of all dramatic production, and my willing suspension of disbelief kicked in with a vengeance tonight.
And I loved the gradual convergence of planets and star to form that wonderful celestial light at the critical moment, shining down into the mess and confusion of a shed full of troubled shepherds and men who had travelled such a long way. This birth was hard and bitter agony for us ...
Maybe the controversy arose because there is no way of telling this story and making it blandly acceptable to everyone.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
I love Advent services. I love the darkness, the restraint, the fact that it's not Christmas yet. I think I always felt like this, even in my heathen days when I didn't really know about Advent. And today underlined something else in the makeup of that feeling. For today could so easily have been a disaster, or cancelled. As it was, it felt precarious, something that might blow out in an instant, like a candle. As the candles on the strange wooden candelabra dripped onto the peace angels hanging under them, as the sopranos' pew candle guttered low in some unseen draught, as the singers in the middle of the group struggled to read their words in the growing dark, there grew this sensation of something at once very human and utterly other, something like a frail glass bauble that could break if you held it too hard.
It was wonderful that it happened, wonderful to see people from outside our small congregation piling in as the snow fell outside, wonderful to see the work that had been done in all sorts of ways to provide candles, the tree, the fabby mulled wine. (I had three glasses: very warming).
Not perfect, but wonderful.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
The great thing is that I'm not anything like as bothered by that thought as I was. The people I met there - especially Jim the nurse - couldn't have been better at mixing professionalism with the appearance of personal interest; the building was newish and therefore cheering; the atmosphere in theatre was calm and unthreatening. My face, having had any vestiges of moisturiser swabbed off it, was swathed in drapes, so I couldn't see anyone, but I was able to listen to the instructions as someone practised tiny stitches on my temple (I never thought of the bit in front of my ear as the temple, but there you are) and join in the discussion about how difficult it was to explain the difference between a granny knot and a reef knot. (To be honest, I think the instructing surgeon was better at surgery than language - it was my idea to call it a granny knot when one stitch had to be removed and redone)
Even the horrid sensation of the local anaesthetic was alleviated by the cheerful warning that it would be like a dental injection but wouldn't last, and by the discussion of the relative merits of the words "prick" and "scratch" in describing the sensation of an injection - apparently they worry about people's reactions to the former - and by the realisation that it worked so well. I was grateful for the fact that I was seen almost as soon as I got there (early: we were anxious about the black ice on the pavements and our ignorance of the hospital layout) and that it was still light when we finally escaped ...
...to some lovely tea and a large chunk of carrot-cake in nearby Brewhaha. Very therapeutic - I recommend it. But let's hear it for the NHS - at least in Glasgow Royal.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
But for readers who don't go for poetry, a word of explanation. I always find Advent incredibly special. The culmination of it all is of course the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve, but as with Holy Week and Easter, the preparation and participation in the whole journey is all. This year feels very different. The arrival of Anna on the day before Advent Sunday, on the first day of the snow that brought the country to a halt, seemed to bring an end to my anticipation, my waiting and longing, before it had even begun. It's inevitable, I suppose, that annual repetition and my own aging will bring a familiarity that might tend to dull the keen edge of the Advent mystery, but this birth and its timing meant that once more a mystical birth was replaced in the front of my preoccupations by a very human birth.
Now I have two Advent grandchildren - see this poem about Alan - it strikes me that the season may never be quite the same again. But maybe this is how it should be - because if there's one thing I've learned in all these years it is that you can't stand still or you turn into a fossil. And we can't have that, can we?
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I grew up reading this book, this very edition. It's old (published in 1937), the cloth and card cover is frayed and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. It has a Glasgow Corporation Education Department stamp in it, but I never took it from a school - it must have been one of the many books brought home by my father to meet my insatiable demands for reading material in the days when I was always ill (and therefore stuck in bed) and devoured print voraciously. My most vivid memory is of lying propped up on one arm in bed in the tiny maid's room where I used to sleep (see post about winter, below) early on a Sunday morning, reading this and eating Pontefract Cakes. (I know - liquorice before breakfast. But it pins it down as a Sunday, for I was only allowed to buy sweets on a Saturday) The room in which I was reading means I was not yet 10 years old, for we moved house when I was 10.
So here I am, reading Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and its prequel, The White Company (set in the period after Sir Nigel but written first) not once, but several times, in my childhood. My relatively early childhood - probably eight at the first reading. I remember that I found Sir Nigel an easier read, but that may have been the size of the print - my copy of The White Company belonged to my mother, and was printed in 1930. But having just found it, I'm reading Sir Nigel again - and marvelling. For a start, I realise how much historical knowledge I picked up from these books - and the reader isn't spared the details, or the long description, or the mediaeval ballad sung by the hero. But the main boggle is reserved for the language. Here's a wee sample:
"I am no subject of yours, proud Abbot!" he cried at last. "My house has ever been vavasor to the king. I deny the power of you and your court to lay sentence upon me. Punish these your own monks, who whimper at your frown, but do not dare to lay your hand upon him who fears you not, for he is a free man, and the peer of any save only the king himself."
No wonder I grew up with a grasp of English that I never found in my pupils. "These your own monks"! Wow! And the complexity of the syntax - and I never questioned, never faltered, for I was caught up in the story and had already fallen for Nigel - and I'm only on page 54. And randomly, from page 307, I find the sentence: "Then it was he that I heard behind us". Not much chance of mixing up subjects and objects and the anomaly of the verb "to be" after that lot, was there?
I could go on, but life calls. I must just point out that what sent me looking for this was a summer holiday in the early '90s, in Benodet on the coast of Brittany. A wet day sent us driving inland in search of the sun. We found it - in Josselin. And the name tweaked at my memory, and sent me to the Michelin guide. Sure enough, the monument to the Bataille des Trentes - if you've looked up the first link, to Wikipedia, you'll find out about this - was close by. Actually it took some finding, being stuck between two bits of motorway down a narrow lane, but it was there, and I had never really known it was real. We looked, we came home, and I went hunting the book. I couldn't find it. I don't know why or how it has returned to my shelves, but I am glad to see it.
Right glad, in fact - the language is getting to me.
Friday, December 10, 2010
When you have a baby - and it doesn't need to be your first; the second merely re-awakes what came before - everything changes. You might, for insance, do something totally crazy, like moving house five weeks after the birth, selling your neat West End flat and taking up residence in a council house in Dunoon, hastily done over after the previous teacher moved out. A move such as this masks what might have happened anyway; I'm thinking of the impulse to comfort and convenience which has you buying a hideous pair of trousers (grey, with orange and black checks) merely because they have an elastic waist and don't need taken up (they seemed ok at the time because I no longer lived in the city and besides no-one knew me in Dunoon). I'm thinking of the effort it takes to wash, change, dress, undress, dress again your new infant, which leaves you too frazzled to do more than hurl an outer garment (only criterion: waterproofing) over your besmotered** top and aforementioned breeks before you heave the pram down the steps and hit the weather. I'm thinking of how suddenly it's ok to go our without a scrap of makeup on your face - something you haven't done since you were ... oh, fifteen? ... and sometimes without even moisturiser (a wee touch of baby cream, maybe?). Life contracts to a primitive level in which only the infant matters - and perhaps the food on the table to keep you, The Great Provider, topped up.
Ok, perhaps not every new mother lets herself go in such abandoned fashion. It took me years to get over the idea that I had moved to a seaside resort and therefore would never need to dress respectably again - maybe I never did. Get over the idea, I mean. Maybe the situation merely compounded a tendency that was already present. But while I was in snow-bound Edinburgh, being Super-Gran (ipsa dixit, I know), I realised that I was in danger of doing it again. I wore the same pair of (warm, practical, techy fabric) black trousers every time I went out, and changed into the same pair of (warm, practical, supremely comfortable, soft techy fabric) trousers to be indoors. I had three other pairs with me that never saw the light of day. I rotated a trio of fleeces, and my jerseys and varied tops remained in the case. I washed what needed washed, and didn't think about what to put on. I didn't actually care. It might be midday before I realised that the tight stretchy sensation about my face wasn't a ski mask; it was my centrally-heated skin, drying out nicely because I'd been too busy making Peppa Pig and Grandfather Pig climb the side of the bath in valiant rescue operations of Little Brother George (blooming millstone that game turned out to be) to put on moisturiser - let alone warpaint. And suddenly it'd be dark outside again, and time for bedtime stories and an hour or so of stupor while Lord Sugar pronounced and fates were decided, and then we'd all stagger to bed again.
And that was before the addiction to Lemsip kicked in ...
*We were going to church (Spiky Mike's), BTW
** This word is found in Chaucer. I use it often. I'm not going to spell it out - you're an educated lot.
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
All this had me reflecting on my own experience of childbirth, and how things have changed. When Anna's father was born, in Dunoon Hospital, I stayed in for a week - not because I was ill, but because that's what we did. It was very restful and we all had a good laugh on the ward, doing one another's hair and eating chocolate cake. I daresay we moaned a bit too. One thing we didn't see all that much of was our men; they appeared at evening visiting, which was for fathers. Grannies, friends and siblings came for an hour in the afternoon. The rest of the time was for us to slob around in, look like frights, sleep with our mouths open, have showers - all without caring. There was no-one to see. The babies slept in the little nursery; we could have them when we wanted and fed them when they wanted - but when we wanted some down-time, they were looked after and we didn't worry. Time enough for that when we got home.
Now, it seems, fathers take up residence in the ward. They lie on the bed, sit holding the baby while mum takes a shower, chat to other dads. Other visitors have regulated times, but the dads are there all the time, apparently. The baby is beside the mother's bed, and she changes nappies as if she were at home. Dads are pressed into service. The atmosphere is a far cry from the peaceful space I remember. I would find it completely stressful to have other people's husbands in the same space as my dishevelled self - we used to spend the hour after teatime putting our faces on and washing our hair so's to look wonderful for evening visits. Progress? Total involvement?
Of course, there was a time when childbirth was Women's Work. Men were banished from the cave/hovel/whatever, and the Sacred Mysteries remained just that. I would never want to return to the perils of childbirth in the raw, but I wonder if the ancients didn't have something. Maybe we need a kind of via media.
Now, back to the kitchen. Someone has to do the cooking, after all ...
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . ."
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
Monday, October 18, 2010
Almost the entire essay had been copied and pasted from the net… and no one had noticed until I looked at it. ...
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Thursday, September 30, 2010
The apartments we saw on one of the upper floors was fascinating in its early 20th century domestic detail, but the real joy was the roof terrace, with its serried ranks of helmeted chimneys and ventilators like soldiers of Sparta or Middle Earth, glittering with tile work (the trencadis, or broken ceramic pieces) or smooth concrete. Wandering the undulating walkways in the bright sun was an exhilarating experience, at once surreal and calming, as if the equilibrium between earth and sky was mirrored in the architecture.
A comment on my earlier post about La Sagrada Familia suggested that it was a waste of resources to complete a building that belonged to the tastes of a previous era, and while I always acknowledge that de gustibus non est disputandum, I shall dispute the idea that resources spent on art are wasted. Many years ago, a teacher I admired gave me notes he'd used in teaching poetry to recalcitrant adolescents, the first words of which were: Poetry, like all the arts, is useless. It went on to enumerate the benefits to the spirit of art, but that first line never failed to bring forth a protest.
Yes, we can concentrate on feeding the poor and ensuring that people are properly housed, and such are the proper aims of society. But any society that cannot find the lightness of spirit - and yes, maybe the lunacy - to invest in something of beauty (taste, again!) misses something really important, I think. And of course, we can argue that all these workmen drilling and cutting and polishing in La Segrada Familia are being paid to do so, and their families are better off because of their labour, and the community benefits from all the paying punters like me who go to gaze and wonder.
No, I was thrilled by what I saw - the Basilica, the unfinished Crypt in Colonia Güell, and this, La Perdrera - and enthused in a way I've not felt in many places. As for the taste of another age - well, there are all these Perpendicular and Norman buildings calling out for restoration and upkeep, all over England, and we don't tend to disparage their even older style, do we? And as for the method of designing these wonderful structures - the hanging bags of lead shot suspended over mirrors that you can see here - this left me gobsmacked.
I'm glad that, even in this rational age, we're still a bit crazy,
Monday, September 27, 2010
It was not that we were all overcome by a need to be holy - of that more in a minute - but that the famous boys' choir sings at 1pm daily. And sure enough, after a few prayers in several languages, there they were. Beautiful voices, yes - though nothing that those of us familiar with the English Cathedral tradition wouldn't recognise. The direction, however, left much to be desired, with a slack beat and flaccid rhythm, and the arrangement of the traditional song they performed was wooden and uninspired.
This pause in the church, however, left space for reflection. The original monks who had struggled up here to found their community were presumably seeking God in the solitude and the silence of the peaks, and in the photo I've chosen you can perhaps get some sense of that - I've managed to lose most of the crowds. But nowadays hordes of tourists flock there, as we did, lighting candles, taking photos (with varying degrees of aggression), shuffling, eating and shopping - and I had the distinct impression of a Deus absconditus, a God who wasn't there any more.
It's at moments like these that I think of our own empty mountains, or of the wind howling through the peaks when the tourists have gone, and experience a strong fellow-feeling with those who say they don't need church to find the presence of God. We humans, we have a terrible tendency - do we not? - to crowd God out, to replace the divine with the digital and the spiritual with the sensual.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
I'm used to gloom and relative silence inside the ecclesiastical buildings I've visited (there are many). Not here. Strangely, it was not the bedlam of workmen who have to make the interior ready for the Papal visit in November that made the greatest impression. It was the light - a pale, greenish/pinkish glow that suggested a mystery beyond the merely holy - the mystery of life itself. The columns are organic in their construction, arching up like great trees to split into smaller branches and then into leaf-like fans supporting the ceiling. They seem to be in no recognisable pattern, and yet nothing seems out of place. The flow of stone is elegant and natural, and the light from windows - stained glass or otherwise - permeates the space from hundreds of openings. We were told of plans to fill some of the light-apertures with coloured glass - I think the accompanying photo shows how this might look (at the top of the pillar in the middle ground)
Outside, I was aware of the contrast between the sculptures round the door we had entered by and the ones on the Passion Façade by which we left. The older are of conventional style, though placed among Gaudi's fantastically melting stonework as in a gigantic dripping candle. On the Passion façade, however, Subirach's sculpture is starkly modern, almost cubist in appearance, and intensely powerful, as the road to the Cross is depicted as an upward path on the Western side of the building. Some of the detail escaped me in the bright midday sun - I only noticed the women covering their faces when I looked at the photos I had taken.
If it does indeed take another 20 years for this amazing building to be completed, it is unlikely that I shall see it. But even as it is, Gaudi's vision has transformed my idea of what a church can be. I shall never be satisfied again!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
There was something surreal in our swift transition from the rain and the dark of Linlithgow at 5am (for Fahrts are based in that august town), via the instant porridge that I ate at Prestwick Airport, to the warm sun and superb beach at Barcelona. I'd seen the forecast and was determined to swim in the sea - not something I've done so far this summer - and did just that, returning up the road to the hotel with the unmistakable holiday feeling of sand between the toes and salty skin.
Out hotel, the Villa Olympic, was one built for the Barcelona Olympics; Bruce our Obersturmbannführer (love the wee dots; not so sure about the spelling) told us to expect quite a swish hotel in an area reminiscent of Leith before gentrification set in. It was noteable chiefly for the interesting layout of the rooms - the first thing you saw when you opened the door was the bath, and there was a great deal of glass, strategically frosted - and the unpredictability of the lifts. It was not uncommon to find frustrated Fahrters soaring from ground floor to sixth and back again when they really wanted floor 2, and you had to use your key to activate it unless you were going straight down and hadn't fouled everything up so that it ground to a halt. This was especially entertaining on the night of The Flood, when a sudden burst pipe in one of the group's rooms dripped down two floors into the foyer and along the corridor. Fiona was in the middle of a hysterical ride when I joined her in the lift and promptly jiggered it; I had a vision of us having to break out through the roof but survived.
By the time we went to bed on the first night a night club was throbbing incessantly a couple of streets away, and the second day saw most of us who had rear-facing rooms switching to the front of the hotel. It also saw us visit La Sagrada Familia - but that's another story for another day. The flooded Fahrters, by the way, were rehoused. In a suite. It's tough being a Fahrter.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Friday, September 10, 2010
The burning of holy books is one of the most extreme manifestations of religious intolerance. It dishonours and devalues the faith of those who hold these texts as sacred. I unreservedly condemn the actions of those who plan to attack the Islamic community by desecrating their scriptures. Those who threaten to do this should be aware that, in today’s world, this will be seen also as a cultural and political provocation and may put at risk the lives of innocent people.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Sunday, September 05, 2010
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
High enough to rise above the noise
of cars and lorries on the road below
high enough to feel the cool wind blow
to raise the hair and chill the sweating back
high enough to see the buzzard swoop
above the trees but far below my feet
high enough to see the rock break through
and shed the layer of turf and gleaming mud -
yes. Here was where this day had to be spent.
High enough, just high enough.