Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blue remembered hills?

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.



Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poem for the day

It's Cowal Games time. I am sitting with the study window closed against the sound of pipes drifting down from the park; it's been three years or more since the bands stopped marching up Argyll Street in full blast and the relative peace is welcome, living where I do in earshot of the road. The promenade parking, I can see, is already a solid line of camper vans and buses. But last night, well after midnight, I saw some (presumably) young people walk past our house - one on its own, and three on the other side of the road, laughing. The solitary one, however, had a phone, working - I could see the green glow from the screen - and it struck me how the use of a phone is the new cover for solitude. Like Ophelia's book - remember? Colouring her alone-ness.

Anyway, feeling just a little like Edwin Morgan's "accursed observer", I wrote a poem. You can read it here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edwin Morgan: a farewell

Edwin Morgan: last rites
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The Bute Hall, Glasgow University. I haven't been in this place since the late '60s, but it looks unchanged. I'm here for the funeral of Edwin Morgan, whose photo hangs above the plain coffin on the dais - a coffin on which lies a single thistle. The face in the photo is the one I saw when I was a student - the big, black-framed specs, the thick hair, the unmistakable smile. It doesn't seem real, somehow, that he is dead - but the blue ranks of seats are filled with people come to say goodbye to the man and to say his words and remember.

It's an entirely secular funeral, and as others I've been to seems longer than the average church ceremony. Maybe there is felt a need to say more, to let everyone contribute in the absence of set ritual; most of the contributions are more wordy than the poet would allow in his work. The best moments glow - David Kinloch reading Strawberries; Tommy Smith's keening saxophone and sudden wolf-howl in front of the coffin; John Butt's organ playing Maxwell Davies' Farewell to Stromness. I sit on the hard seat, and think of the lightness and unassuming grace of the man we're remembering, and some of the Chapel Choir sing A Man's a Man and I long for a less pedestrian setting.

We're all invited to take a dram and a bit of shortbread in the University Chapel. There are also hot drinks, but I stick with the whisky and sip it as I suddenly realise that's Bernard McLaverty over there, and see Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell - and George Reid who was Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament and who spoke at length ...

There are folk, mostly men, who look as if they should be important, in a literary sort of a way, and there are the quietly ordinary ones who turn out to be seriously important but don't seem to have realised it. Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chancellor, has mislaid Liz Lochhead, and Jackie Kay passes and smiles. I realise I've still not had any lunch - a cereal bar eaten in the sunny Arts Quad before the ceremony doesn't really count - and feel it's time to leave. I walk down the chapel steps to the Professors' Quadrangle for the first time since my wedding day forty years ago, into the warm sun that never seemed to shine in term-time. I think of being young, and uncertain, and of how the wind whistled round the quadrangles as we queued for classes, and how unreal university felt, that first year in 1964.

Life is very short, really - even for a 90 year old. Thank God for the poetry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Janice Galloway at the Book Festival

The tent is packed. It's a big enough space for you to forget it's a tent, except that the walls wave gently as doors are opened, and there are tiered seats rising into the gloom and faces occupying almost all of them already, for the bus up Leith Walk took for ever and we are late. Another five minutes and we'd not have been allowed in ... but here we are. Two seats, not too far back, not too much off centre - lucky. We peel off jackets, subside gratefully. It is very warm. This is Edinburgh, for Pete's sake - feels more like Rome.

The lights dim, a spotlight picks out two white plastic chairs. Two women appear and sit on them. One of them, in a longish, blackish dress and a fawn cardigan, is Janice Galloway, the writer; the other, in trousers and a red top, Ruth Wishart, the journalist. Ruth Wishart speaks first - such a familiar voice, though I don't know that I've ever seen her. The first five minutes are taken up with banter about ice - someone has blundered, there is no ice to put into various orifices, to throw down the writer's cleavage - and it's hot. Galloway joins in. "Hello, Edinburgh." She begins quietly - will we have to strain through the traffic noise that deeves at these events? But no. The ice duly arrives, the talk loosens, we can hear just fine.

Thank God for that. Galloway begins by reading from one of her most physical of short stories, Blood. I know it well, wonder how far she'll read, how Mr B'll react if she goes right to the end. But she contents herself with the awfulness of the dental extraction - the sucking sensation, the black wiry hairs on the dentist's fingers, his callous jocularity. I love how she reads. She has a way of stressing words with just the right dry emphasis to make sure of their impact, and her body language is that of the born comedian. Her specs come off, go on again, are waved for emphasis. She reads, she talks about her writing, about teaching, about the kind of teacher who shouldn't, like herself when she asked a pupil: who do you think you are? And I wish all teachers had that degree of self-awareness, only our schools would be sadly undermanned.

In the gap before audience questions, I realise that the tent is flapping. Alarmingly. Great scooshes of wind drive a patter of rain over the heaving dark blue above our heads, and I picture the whole caboodle falling in, the huge gantries of lights crashing down on us, and I wonder if there'd be time to get under the tiny seats. You can tell I've spent a week in a San Francisco hotel. But the professionals under the spotlight don't falter. Galloway doesn't falter when the first question - from a teacher, of course - turns out to be banal and leads nowhere. She barely answers it, but leads us off on another ramble through psychology and parenting and life - and then there are other questions and before we know it the session is about to end. There will be a final reading.

But it doesn't end with more of Galloway's writing. It ends rather with her reading one of Edwin Morgan's poems - Edwin Morgan who has died 26 hours earlier. She reads it as beautifully as she does her own work. And then, urging us all to go to a book-signing, she leaves.

And we leave. It takes ages. And I'm so glad the roof didn't fall in.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Edwin Morgan: taking it personally

The death of a famous person snags the consciousness, be they movie star, writer or monarch. But when that famous person is someone you've known, the news of their death is a moment of bereavement. And now Edwin Morgan has died, and the memories surface.

My first memory is one shared by hundreds of undergraduates at Glasgow University. I was a student in the huge Ordinary English class of 64-65, daunted by lectures on Extraneous Factors in Literary Criticism (what do you write down during such a lecture?), ignorant of anything beyond the school syllabus, in which we had studied nothing written after the 1920s. Edwin Morgan was the youngest figure to lecture to us, on 20th century poetry. His slightly breathless, undeniably Scottish voice was encouraging; I found something to write down. A friend produced a poem: look - he wrote this! And things began to join up.

Fast forward to the late '90s. I am no longer ignorant about 20th century poetry and have Morgan's collected poems as well as a slim volume or two. I have taught generations of children First Men on Mercury and In Central Station along with other gems, and they have loved them. Morgan comes to the school to talk to the seniors, and I am detailed to look after him - because you knew him. I am in awe - more than when I was 20 - and delighted. He wears a yellow jacket and reads his poems and the voice is still there, quieter but recognisable, and we can't get the kids to leave him alone at the end because it is obvious they love him as they loved his poems. He tells me he'll probably not make it to Dunoon again as he comes by public transport and the stairs on the ferry are getting to be too much for him. When he leaves, I write a poem about the visit. Later, I realise the librarian has sent it to him, for he sends a postcard in thanks.

In the years that follow, I presume upon my renewed contact with Morgan to send him poems - not just my own, about which he is encouraging, offers constructive advice, but also poems written by pupils. The best moments are landmarks for them: the very mixed bunch of S2 boys who write their own poems based on the form of Off Course and laboriously compose the accompanying letter which they dictate to the most literate of their number; the S3 girl who makes a speech about Strawberries for her Solo Talk assessment and sends him the script. Nothing goes unacknowledged, and each is the recipient of a personal reply - photocopied 27 times in the case of the boys.

My final memory, however, is mine alone. Morgan, by now already living in one nursing home because of illness, has to transfer to a second on the closure of the first, and comes to inhabit a room on the floor below the one in which my mother has lived for the previous 6 months following a stroke. Despite the stroke-induced problems with speech, my mother tells me that he has been visiting her on "her" floor, having been told that there's a lady who loves poetry there. He reads to her, and brings a new interest into her last months. The day before she dies, I take a breather from sitting in her room, ask a nurse if Professor Morgan is able to see a visitor. She doubts it, as he has been in pain that day, but checks - and swiftly comes back with an invitation. He is sitting at a desk in a room identical to my mother's, but lined with books. He is wearing a rust-coloured needlecord shirt. I thank him for what he has done for my mother, and tell him her end is near. He holds my hand, tells me I shall write about this experience some day, but not yet. I tell him there is one poem already, about nasturtiums. I love nasturtiums, he says.

I read the poem at the funeral the next week.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

More forties

Choir stalls
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Another of those days when there seems to be a kink in time. I have sat in these choir stalls, in the Cathedral of The Holy Spirit, Cumbrae, more times than I can count - rehearsing, participating in services, waiting to be confirmed - or as today, listening to the music of my fellow-musicians in a concert.

Today saw the culmination of 41 years of singing with the St Maura Singers - we had intended it as a 40th anniversary concert, but illness meant cancellation last Autumn and today we resurrected that programme, having managed to reassemble with the two extra singers required by some of the music. During those 41 years of singing together, the quartet has frequently performed the early Scottish music arranged by Kenneth Elliott, who is now 81 but was 40 when we were discovering this music. So it was forty years that vanished into the fold of memory as I listened to the string ensemble play, and to the ravishing Lamento della Ninfa of Monteverdi, and I was at once young again and wondering how many more times I would be able to experience this particular joy.

Most of the music this afternoon came from the 16th century, but two notable exceptions were the very new arrangements by John McIntosh (aka Mr B) of folk songs - The Broken Brook and Nancy - originally commissioned by Cappella Nova. The shifting, folk-based syncopations of Nancy had caused our augmented group more problems than we might care to admit, and we were thrilled that it actually came together - proof of which was that wonderful sigh from the audience in the moment before the applause began.

The other high point for me was that at last we got to perform the Tomkins When David Heard. I've gone on about this before on the blog; this afternoon's performance became somehow electric so that we balanced on a fine wire between emotion and perfection and ended in a silence that seemed eternal.

If this afternoon's performance were to turn out to be the last time the voice held out, the last time I would have the privilege of singing this stuff, I would be content. Not so content, however, that I don't hope we can do it again ...

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Transfiguration prayer

Like being airborne
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
God of the mountain-top,
God of the shining clouds
May the wind of your spirit
Blow afresh in our lives
Renew our love
Strengthen our witness
And send us from the heights of your presence
Transfigured by the radiance of our meeting
with Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Not only do I forget to blog - or even to think - during the holiday period; I also give myself permission to read "holiday books", whether I'm in a foreign place or snatching some sunlounger moments in the back garden. This, chums, is such a book - and boy, did I enjoy it. Christopher Brookmyre writes the kind of stuff that I used to suggest to non-reading chaps in S5, and the author apparently once chastised my no. 1 son for letting his mother read his first oeuvre. But I have to confess to the inner tomboy, the one that climbed trees and ran wild all summer, and she (the I.T.) loved Pandaemonium in the way I remember from my childhood: carrying the book around with me, reading it on the ferry and in the hairdresser's, putting it reluctantly aside at 1am in the knowledge that I was about to read myself out of any desire to sleep.

It's a crazy story, of course, with supernatural elements juxtaposed with the more usual Brookmyre fare of stroppy Glasgow kids and a challenging environment, in this case somewhere beyond Inveraray. There's a horrific incident involving a burning bus, a crash, and a deer on the roof - but that's just to introduce the various kids as they head for a weekend of bonding and debriefing after a fatal stabbing in their school. The real horror comes from a parallel tale of an underground facility and a top-secret military experiment, long since out of control - and in the same area as the base for the bonding weekend.

The language is foul, the descriptions gory, and the discussions among the staff about the nature of belief surprisingly serious and interesting. The tension builds beautifully - perhaps hideously might be a better word - and the climax is unexpected. I didn't expect it anyway. I just enjoyed it.

At this rate I'll never read a serious book again.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Grandparents in charge

Sampling the sea
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Strange, isn't it? I've been out of teaching for five years and I still slide into school holiday mode as far as any kind of regular activity goes. Blogging is one of them - though I have noticed a distinct downturn in others' productivity as well. But this last week I've had a cast iron excuse: a three-year-old. Catriona came to stay on her own for the first time in her 2 years 11 months and Mr B and I realised why we didn't compose symphonies or write the novel when we were younger.

It wasn't just that she was sleeping in the study where all work gets done. I can quite easily use the laptop elsewhere. It was rather the constant need to be there, interacting or simply vigilant, for 12 hours a day, at the end of which we were too exhausted to do anything other than stare slack-jawed at an hour or so of telly and then slope off to bed. And the responsibility of watching over someone else's child struck me with even greater force than I remember from these first weeks on my own with my firstborn.

Part of it is the very fact of being older - not just in terms of stamina, for sometimes I think I have more of that, but in the knowledge of what can go wrong (you've been there), in the inability to carry said child for more than a minute or two without collapsing. There is, however, an interesting new dimension. You see, grandparents exist to be jolly, imperturbable, accommodating and indulgent. If you're in sole charge over four days you can't be that way all the time because you have to do the annoying things:
No, Annabelle can't come out on the scooter. (Annabelle is an unreasonably solid doll which weighs the same as a real baby. I conceived an intense dislike for her after having her in church with us)
No, you can't watch another episode of Peppa Pig. It's dinnertime.
No, you can't stay on the beach for another hour - it'll get dark if we're not careful.

But the best moment, one which had us both in tucks, came when I was lifting her into her booster seat at the table. Just as I reached the point of greatest tension - arms at shoulder-height to get her feet under the table, muscles trembling with the effort - Catriona wanted Annabelle. Again. And I heard myself say, in tones of intense irritation: "Ewan!"

Now, if you'd asked me if I had problems bringing up my children I'd probably - at this safe distance - have said "Oh, no - they were lovely - no bother really after the teething and so on." It wouldn't be fear of the consequences either. I seem to have airbrushed the memory, that's all. But at that moment it all flooded back. The arguments, the reasoning required before doing something mundane, the sudden imperative about a stone or a handful of cut grass ... It was all there. And suddenly I wasn't Grandma any more, as a kink in time brought the years together.

By the end of the visit, I'd called Catriona "Ewan" twice, and Mr B did it on the prom while wrestling with the scooter. (Its back wheels need slackening, Ewan!) But it was great fun. To see a tiny child heaving her body-weight in stones into the sea, to have her draw "spotty faces" (she's seen someone with freckles), to sit on the beach pretending to eat shell-and-sand-and-seaweed pies while the waves lapped gently and everyone else went home - this was wonderful. Interestingly, she spoke French only once in the whole visit, and then translated for me - though we marvelled at the way she pronounced "crème fraîche" when she wanted more. (We gave her it. I can't do that French "r" to save myself, and she does it so wonderfully.)

And when she made her cheeky face and grinned at me, it was like looking at myself. Oh dear.

I've been struggling to add a grave accent to the "e" in crème. I'm grateful to @bagpie and @spodzone for their assistance.