Friday, April 30, 2010

Blinkered vision

Last weekend I ordered a book from Amazon - oh, the fatally easy one-click ordering! - and realised as I hit "buy" that it would arrive when I was away from home. Never mind, I thought - it's a paperback; it's going to fit through the box. Nae problem.

Later that day my pal, knowing the hunt I had had for a particular scarf, rang me from her foray to deepest England to tell me she'd found one and was posting it. "I'll be away ..." I said, but she reassured me. It was small and light and in a small envelope. It would fit through the letter-box. Again, nae problem.

We arrived home on Wednesday afternoon to find the familiar post-card from the postie. "You were out". Indubitably. I would have to wait till next morning to find my parcel - for it mentioned only one. What, I wondered, had become of the other one?

Yesterday morning I found out. The postie - or whoever prepares mail for his round - had fastened my book and the envelope with the scarf together with one of the Post Office elastic bands that tend to litter the doorstep. But the postie hadn't removed said band this time, despite the fact that individually the book packet and the scarf envelope slid easily through the box. No, he had solemnly written that this parcel was too big to go through and that I would have to collect it.

Dead convenient, no?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Electoral circus

Last night's news left me more despairing about this election than I can ever remember. And the inane phone-in on BBC Scotland this morning hasn't helped. How can anyone pretend that they never express private opinions at odds with their public face? The idea that it was somehow heinous for Gordon Brown to smile (and smile, and be a villain - see, Shakespeare knew it all) at that woman (no - by the 10pm news she was "a pensioner" - instant pathos) and then allow himself a private girn in his refreshingly original accent (not the rather more bland public one) is simply daft. Or mischief-making. Ok, it was singularly silly not to remember he was wearing a mic - but it happens. And usually it's a laugh.

One look, a moment later, at shiny Dave; one flash of the steady Honest Gaze of The Clegg - how can we take this seriously? Brown is like the rest of us, maybe - willing to put on a smile to ease the situation, honest enough to collapse in unguarded fury afterwards. He may well have made mega-mistakes in government, but no-one's really talking about them any more. This election, mates, is a circus.

Ok, the woman was pissed off at him. And she may well change the voting habits of a lifetime because of that. But must the rest of the electorate join her?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Unreal city ...

There are some benefits to having a cold bad enough to keep you grounded, of which reading - even, as I suggested in the last post, reading turgid Victorian accounts of Alpine ascents - must surely be the most enduring. I've positively galloped through Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds", enjoying it so much that I've just ordered another of her novels. I shall never see London and Londoners in quite the same light after reading this - the Guardian's description of "the big, panoramic London novel we've been waiting for" just about hits it.

I was impressed by the skill with which the five main characters are drawn, gradually filled in and slowly and inevitably pulled together, and delighted by the strings that weren't tied - the suspicion that there was a further connection left unmade, the doubt left as to precisely what another character might have done or not done. I noted yet another contemporary fiction brought alive by the constant present tense, and the different pace of modern speech after the Greene I read earlier last week. This is skilful, flowing prose that kept me reading instead of fretting, a book I lugged on the train to Glasgow after only a chapter, because I was too hooked to leave it for a day.

I suppose what I learned most from Hearts and Minds was just a hint of the way so much ordinary life teeters on top of so much that is extraordinary - made so by the problem of asylum seekers, economic migrants and the immigration laws. In a way that reminds me of Roman citizens closing their minds to the implications of slavery in their culture, we see the middle classes' reliance on the services of illegal immigrants and their willingness to ignore why, for example, their au pair works for so little, or seems so exhausted by mid-afternoon. When Polly's au pair vanishes suddenly, her reaction is one of irritation, disappointment, panic for her child-care arrangements - but not panic for the au pair or her fate. All this changes as she, like the novel, starts making connections.

Enough, already. Read it!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Rose, thou art sick ...

Feeling oppressed by the latest in a series of colds - after 6 years without one, I've had 4 in the past year as well as a proper dose of flu - I found myself recalling the colds of childhood. Nowadays, children have their own dedicated medicine - Calpol in varying strengths, for instance - but in the late '40s and '50s there didn't seem to be any such thing. This morning I was suddenly taken back to the taste of Disprin crushed in a teaspoonful of raspberry jam, and the bottle of pink liquid - may have been called Mystol - that was dripped into my nose from a glass dropper to relieve congestion. And I remembered the miserable long nights when I would waken with a raging thirst and try to eke out the tumbler of water that had been left beside my bed - why, in God's name, did I not get up and replenish it? Was I too small to reach the sink?

At that time my parents' bedroom seemed miles from where I slept in the maid's room off the kitchen. The distance must've worried them too, for when I was seriously ill (as when I had whooping cough, for instance) my long-suffering father would sleep in the kitchen on the camp bed he'd brought back from the Western Desert; later I can remember changing beds with one or other of my parents - who never enjoyed sleeping in a double bed - so that someone could keep an eye on me. This was a great treat, as my own bed had a horsehair mattress of fairly unyielding discomfort, and I found their beds miraculously comfortable. Less yielding was the stone hot water bottle that my father liked - you could break a toe on it, or send it crashing through the floor to the flat below if you tried to kick it out of the bed. (I think that was probably an exaggeration, but it convinced me)

Another thing about Being Ill in those days was the fact that I seemed to spend interminable hours - days, even - in bed. You didn't get up until you were better in these days; I suppose the house was cold and there was no telly to seduce you, but it was a feature of recovery that when I did emerge into the family again my legs would be as wobbly as those of a new-born colt. I read hundreds of books - I clearly remember reading Edward Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps when I was eight, having run out of anything more suited to my own age group. Perhaps my progress in English was directly linked to all these shivery days in bed.

All this reminiscing is making me feel worse, but I have one last memory of a symptom which to this day tells me I'm under the weather: when I was ill, the toothpaste never tasted right. Does that ring any bells out there?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Burnt-out case

Another old, small paperback - and I've found that there are some of this edition of Graham Greene's A Burnt-out Case for sale on Amazon, though as it's only the 1980 edition it hardly counts, surely, as vintage? The novel, about a famous architect hiding from the world in a leper colony in Africa, was written in 1960, though it has that timeless quality of Greeneland, and, like the other books I've been re-reading, that same effortlessly elegant prose. The opening two sentences give a taste of what is to come:
The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: 'I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,' then sat pen in hand with no more to record. The captain in a white soutane stood by the open windows of the saloon reading his breviary.

There you have it. The assumption that the reader will know the original of the parody, the nameless characters about whom we will gradually learn more, the Catholic priest captaining the boat promising that there will be Catholic guilt at some point. Querry, the passenger, doesn't in fact suffer from guilt - he has lost the ability to feel much about anything at all. Famous in his field, victim of a terrible attack of indifference, he arrives at the Congo leper village where the doctor diagnoses him as the mental equivalent of a 'burnt-out case', a leper who has gone through the stage of mutilation and in whom the disease is no longer active.

A strange book. It depressed me when I read it in the 70s, though understanding has grown in the intervening years. The end comes with shocking banality - but is perhaps the only conclusion that would satisfy. I'm glad I read it again - I'd forgotten big chunks of it, and became immersed in the heat and difficulties of Querry's new life and the awfulness of the white community beyond the leproserie. And yes, it was immensely portable.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pay for Ning?

Darn. The other day I read that Ning networks will have to be paid for - you can read it for yourself here. Now I always wonder just how all these wonderfully useful sites actually make any money for their creators - how they even pay their way at all - though I know that advertising comes into it. But I'm sad about the Ning story simply because I've just created a new network for a small group doing distance learning for a module on reading the Bible. It's a closed network, so that I have to invite people to join it, and as such provides a safe space for homework, work in progress and discussion about difficulties and enthusiasms.

It is particularly important because the members of this group are scattered over such a wide area, with only two of them even in the same part of Argyll. It would be prohibitively expensive, not to say draining, to meet face-to-face as frequently as the course requires, and it is actually quite difficult to share relatively complex ideas over a telephone conference. The Ning network gives members a chance to experiment with, among other things, writing styles in preparation for the formal assignments which will have to be assessed, and it gave me as facilitator the opportunity to offer a bit of practical help on essay-writing. I have yet to try out the chat facility - haven't managed to coincide online with anyone yet - and would be interested to know if anyone out there has used it. Ideally, it'd be great to be able to be reading someone's stuff and commenting on it live.

I know there are other options for this kind of thing, but I plumped for a Ning because it is relatively unthreatening for people who tend not to use any kind of social networking sites. It doesn't really work for the one person on the course who doesn't yet have broadband, and there are still hiccups with people learning where to put comments, but I was optimistic - until now. The participants on the course have already paid to be on it, and the budget is small. Is it only a matter of time before we have to pay for all our social networking?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Unregistered at last

It's official. I am no longer eligible to teach in Scotland - I have the letter telling me so. I thought it was time to give up any pretence that I might one day feel the need to re-enter the classroom; in the past four-and-a-half years I have not been even remotely tempted. I stayed registered during that period, I suppose, in case boredom or penury should prove too much for me in my retired state, but it has not been so. The letter from the GTC thanked me for the time I have given to the teaching profession in Scotland, and wished me well for the future.

I take heart from their assurance that I still have a future, but today I was reflecting on the past, for the setting up of the GTC coincided with my time at university, when I was already sure that I would teach. Before that, I remember the dreaded "non-certificated" teachers who occasionally made an appearance in our classrooms, usually in times of prolonged staff illness. They never lasted, and even as teenagers we knew they didn't quite cut it. The GTC, I reckon, has been A Good Thing. And like all good things, for me, it has come to an end.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Laughter, pure and simple


Just had to share this on somewhere I could find it again - the most wonderful example of total mirth and involvement. I don't know what Catriona was laughing at - though it sounds as if it's her Dad - but it makes me giggle just watching her.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Conservative anarchy?

Well what was all that about? David Cameron's launch of the Tory Manifesto left me visualising the kind of mayhem that might result from his notion of handing power to the people. What people, pray? I thought that was what democracy was about - we elect people to do all that stuff for us, pay them to take the time to do it full-time and not fit it in on a night when there's nothing to watch on the telly. What kind of people would be manning the barricades over the local post offices or starting up their own schools?

Ok, I sound scathing about ... well, people. And politicians are people too, but the point is that they do work at it full-time, give it their full attention for the span of a parliament. If they're rubbish, we don't vote them in again, and it looks as if their party gets rid of them if they're caught being naughty. And of course, if they use Twitter unwisely they don't even get the chance. Maybe the Tories want to do without Parliament at all, then? Return to village councils and local barons? Wicked sheriffs? Maybe not.

But it looks like a recipe for anarchy to me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Journey into an old friend

I've just been re-reading Eric Ambler's thriller Journey into Fear, not in the Penguin Modern Classics edition shown here but in a Fontana edition of 1973. The book itself was first published in 1940, and there are reminders of its vintage in the length of the sentences, the complexity of the syntax, and the fact that the hero and his nemesis discuss philosophy and ancient history at length over a meal rather than have the content of their conversation swiftly summarised by the author. Graham Greene - and I'm now re-reading one of his novels - described Ambler as "unquestionably our best thriller writer", and there are similarities in style between the two writers' work. I found myself vaguely recalling that so-and-so was found dead, and that thingummyjig turned out to be a baddie, but these memories served only to sharpen the suspense, which is that of the skilfully-handled closed environment (in this case a steamer) in which the protagonists must constantly interact.

But the thing that struck me most forcibly while I was reading was the size of the book. Remember when paperbacks used to be small? Little, lightweight things that could be stuffed in a pocket? That you could read in bed without fearing a broken nose should you fall asleep while reading? When did they become large-format tomes with lots of white space and big print? I found I really enjoyed this foray into the past: the yellowing pages and 9-point text seemed suited to the slightly formal prose and the menace of travel in the early part of the war, and I remember my mother telling me that she used to send paperbacks out to Egypt for my father to read. I can imagine a small Fontana book pulled from a battledress pocket in a desert bivvie - but not a fat, glossy, self-satisfied modern edition.

More blasts from the literary past to follow ...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Burning zeal


End of a successful fire...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
After a frustrating 24 hours of internetlessness, now mercifully resolved, I managed to save today in all its loveliness by having a bonfire. It isn't possible for us to indulge in such soothing pyromania chez nous, surrounded as we are by other houses, but the church's huge - and sometimes daunting - grounds are just calling out for such activity and today had been designated for a clear-up of grounds and Rectory - the former after a hard winter, the latter after les travaux, big-style.

I have always been a pyromaniac at heart, the kind of child who played with matches and loved cooking sausages on a stick over a fire (charred on the outside, raw within); the child who lit fires in underground air-raid shelters; the adult who today offered to take care of all the rhododendrons which the chaps were howking out of the ground while the Marthas toiled in the Rectory.

At one point, I thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew (don't be silly. It's a figure of speech. I wasn't eating rhoddies) when only a thin trickle of smoke was coming from the shoulder-high pile of branches and glossy green leaves with the odd bramble waving destructively from somewhere in its midst. Most of the Marthas had gone home for luch, and I was left with Mrs Heathbank and Hugh, soon to be known as Hugh the Martyr after he jumped onto the pile to drive it down onto the flames. (The martyrdom was aborted when he succeeded in suppressing the fire completely). My despair deepened when Mrs H went home for lunch and Hugh went off to attack yet another bush. What would I do?

In fact, all I needed to do was open a wee cave in the foot of the fire. I propped the mound up with a curving branch, rather in the manner of a Greenham woman's bender, letting in a tiny wind that had conveniently chosen this moment to blow. A sudden crackling from deep within the pile suggested that all was not lost, and minutes later the flames burst through the top, the heat intensified, there was ash flying everywhere and it was all I could do to rake the fire together without being singed. Fifteen minutes later, all that was left was the small pile of ash you can see smoking in the photo, and I was satisfied.

But I think we may need another wee tidy of the fallen sticks on the lawn - and maybe another wee fire?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sacred Hearts and their secrets

I've just finished reading Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant - though I see they've brought out a new (and cheaper) edition with an unfamiliar cover. Never mind. It seemed a strangely appropriate book to be reading at the end of Lent - even though all the time I fretted uselessly about the fact that I was yielding to the temptation to read fiction rather than the serious reading I'd lined up all those weeks ago.

Set in the convent of Santa Caterina, in 1570 Ferrara, the novel tells the story of one reluctant novice and her fight to escape the prison of convent life to which she has been condemned by her father after an unsuitable love affair. Her mentor, the scholarly Suora Zuana, works in the dispensary, and we see the story through her eyes and through those of Serafina, the novice, although the use of 3rd person narrative keeps a certain distance and balance.The sense of convent life unfolding inevitably is intensified by the use throughout of the present tense - there is no feeling that anyone in the novel already knows what has happened in this momentous year; no omniscient narrator to hold our hands as the changes in the Church threaten the stability of what some might see as a home for women who are brides of Christ only because they have not become brides of anyone else.

Dunant again creates a believable picture of life in Renaissance Italy in what one critic described as "A rip-roaring tale in which gutsy vulgarity and ferocious academic intelligence go hand in hand". She also shines a probing light on such fascinating topics as holy anorexia, lesbianism among nuns, pre-modern teenagers and music in convents at this period. But in among all this scholarly knowledge there is a sixteen-year-old girl who could belong to this century in the turbulence of her emotions and her rebellious spirit, whose attitude to the faith she is supposed to embrace would seem familiar to many of us. And, despite the odd syntactical glitch, it's an absorbing read. I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

We are an Easter people ...


Easter Garden
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Easter morning. The sun shone, the church was full of the sound of Alleluias. In the Lady Chapel, the scene of Mary Magdalene's encounter with the risen Christ was recreated on the altar - though few know that the highly painted Mary was given this look, eyeshadow and all, by an American woman of the US Navy days who had been to a cake-decorating class, or that a former rector as well as the two garden-creators had risked life and limb retrieving the figures from the shell of the tower, currently out of bounds after the discovery of ... well, everything destructive. But at Easter anything is possible.

The Paschal Candle seemed to have burned down hardly at all overnight, and was still alight. We were unable, at the last minute, to have incense because of the inability of some of the congregation to tolerate the smoke - though yours truly did cense the church after they'd gone: we don't have incense nearly as often as we used to and it was just sitting there, asking to be lit.

Holy Week came at the end of a difficult Lent - it's much less easy to be quietly introspective/studious/prayerful when you're involved in the providing side of services. But the Triduum was as powerful as ever, the services moving and the atmosphere holy, and the repeated shouts of "He is risen indeed - Alleluia!" sounded heartfelt, not to say hearty.

Hugh's sermon today pointed to the congregation - bickering, bumbling us - as the risen body of Christ. Quite a challenge. Alleluia!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Paschal Alleluias

Allejuia! The New Fire was lit, the Paschal Candle processed into the dark church, the old readings heard, the Litany sung. Now the candle burns in the darkness, to be there when we return to church in the morning, where the risen Christ will greet us in the breaking of bread ...

It never fails, that dark service, the tiny lights that grow in the gloom as the candles around are lit from that first fire. Always the thrill, always something different and much that is timeless. Tonight a sudden wind threatened the fire, making the lighting of it difficult - and raising the possibility of a server or two losing an alb to the flame - but when it came, in a rush of gold in the gloaming, it was all the more triumphant. Tonight it was so dark and our tiny candles so compelling that we who read could not see the floor, feeling our way to the lectern as if we had just learned to walk. Tonight I sang the plainsong of the Paschal Litany rather than the Exsultet, and felt there was no reason for the song to stop.

And it is so, so satisfying to know that the Paschal candle has been left burning, left in this era of Health and Safety, this time of Insurance Risks - our candle will be there burning in the morning. Allelulia!

Friday, April 02, 2010

Comment moderation

I've had to implement comment moderation for the blog because of a troll called Ronnie. I haven't the least idea who he is, but he's currently trailing slime over everything I write. I hope this won't put normal commenters off: you'll see your comments appear as usual after I've approved them.

Thinking on Good Friday

Good Friday. A difficult day - what an understatement, really, if you think about it. Sun and sudden warmth, a fat bee raising clouds of pollen on the catkins which the blue tits had just vacated after a morning's swinging: all this life, this rebirth contrasts with the stark interior of the church, the bare altar, the cross alone in the middle of it, the brass eagle lectern lying as if in sorrow on the front pew ...

How often have I experienced this strangeness? I suppose for me it's maybe been 36 years since I sang the Reproaches in the Cathedral of The Isles, wondering at the mystery of it all; I can have missed perhaps one Good Friday service since then. And the strangeness is compounded, always, by the unheeding world down the hill, in the town, and nowadays in the online community. It used to upset me; perhaps it's something you just become used to because now I merely observe. And this year, as always, I thought of Auden's poem Musee des Beaux Arts, which points out that suffering is always going on somewhere, unnoticed by all but those most closely involved.

So today I'm thinking about suffering, and about all innocents who suffer despite - or maybe because of - their innocence.

Chilly repose


Altar of Repose
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Another Maundy Thursday, another vigil by the Altar of Repose in the Lady Chapel at the back of the dark church - a chapel lit surprisingly brightly by the candles on the altar, but bitterly cold despite the heating which had been on all through the service. It is usually a chilly business, and tonight, as the temperature outside dropped to 0ÂșC and the draught fell on our heads from the hole opened in the ceiling to check for rot, it was all too easy to let the mind wander.

You could say the wandering, in my case, was vaguely relevant as I wondered how chilly it might be in Gethsemane that night at Passover time. I found myself thinking that at least the disciples of Jesus would have robes to pull over their heads, and wishing that I had one. Sleep, on the other hand, was not a possibility in our situation, and the fact that the disciples seem to have drifted off to sleep while Jesus prayed points to rather warmer air.

But we waited, four of us, extinguishing the candles in the wooden stands (one is just visible at each side of the photo) as they burned down in the eddying air and threatened to set the whole thing alight, until the final gospel reading. And then out, into the night where the stars seemed to nail the sky in place and our breath streamed warm in the frigid air, and down the hill to the town. Good Friday is almost upon us.