Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dancing Backwards for a holiday

I always save promising books for holidays - by which I mean time spent away from home - and almost always end up hardly reading at all because of whatever activity the holiday brings and the resulting torpor at the end of the day. But Dancing Backwards, by Salley Vickers, had me proposing 'a quiet morning' so that I could get on with it. All right, the weather was fine and the garden inviting and set in a favourite glen, so I wasn't exactly turning my back on life, but all the same ...

As with Miss Garnet's Angel, I found myself liking the principal character from the first page. Her dismayed reaction to the queues to join her expensive cruise ship struck a chord, as did her determination to have the windows open to the sea while she slept. I felt safe and engaged and ready to explore the ship, the other passengers and Violet's past - and I knew I had the breadth of the Atlantic in which to do it.

The prose is deceptively simple and calmly perfect. Past and present follow one another in illuminating pairings as Violet is prompted to remember by the events of the cruise. And as she recalls her past we learn more about the woman she has become, and understand why she becomes so involved with the people she meets. Her involvement with Dino, one of the professional dancers on the ship, completes this stage in her development and she leaves the ship in New York with a new ability to cope with the next stage in her life.

So yes, it was a good book for a holiday. I don't know how it makes me feel about a cruise, though ...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

While life goes on ...

We attended a midday Eucharist today in All Saints, Hereford - an ancient, city centre church that was in a bad way until a cafe was set up at the back of the nave. I have been there several times, as the friend with whom I am staying celebrates at the Wednesday lunchtime Eucharist on a regular basis, and we tend to stay to have our lunch in the busy cafe that has been clattering with life and cutlery all through the service.

In a way, it's quite easy to blot out the noise, because it's a feature of the worship during the week: there is a fully-functioning commercial operation there which helps to keep the church open and in decent nick. There is even one of these marvellous pod loos which are the envy of the looless
everywhere. It always makes me think of what it must have been like in first century Jerusalem, where the events of Holy Week were played out against the backdrop of other people's noisy indifference.

In fact, it was harder as we ate our lunch to ignore the behaviour of two children, obviously set loose by their mother to let her eat in peace, who were on the rampage in the choir of the church. When she finally deigned to collect them - before, as she herself said, they trashed the place - she seemed quite oblivious to the fact that their behaviour was totally out of place and was causing considerable irritation to several people.

So what do we do? Do we go on the assumption that we can't snarl at the kids - or their mother - lest they are confirmed in some prejudice about church and religion? Or do we stand up for a sense of place and of decorum and insist that a place of worship isn't a playground where banging the seats up and down is all good clean fun? After all - where and when did we all learn how to behave?

Just asking ...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Being here

Being here has always mattered more
than where I’m going. So.
To be aware of the elusive scent
of myrtle in the sun, to catch
the distant gleam of wet rock
in the corrie’s dark recess,
to note the brown swirl of the timeless burn
- all this erodes its own path,
creates a time-worn journey in my soul,
a path to which I turn without a thought
of where it all might end.
The upturned wings glide overhead
- a whisper passing in the breeze –
and if I never know I have arrived
so be it. I am here.

©C.M.M. 07/12

You can find this poem with the view I was seeing when the first sentence came into my head here, though in many ways it is more applicable to the place in this photo, where I have often stopped instead of climbing further. Because of the rules of Blipfoto, I couldn't use this pic for the entry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of crows (or not) and sinews

Another improbably lovely morning in Glen Rosa as the early clouds melt and a hot sun shines on the garden - a totally private and sheltered place by virtue of the enormous rhododendrons that surround it. Yesterday was spent, you might say, on the doorstep - if doorsteps can extend for about 5 miles and climb several hundred feet and take over seven hours to traverse! For those unfamiliar with the terrain, Glen Rosa is a perfect glaciated valley rising through its length to a well-defined saddle which separates it from Glen Sannox. That saddle is where we ate our picnic yesterday, as two large black birds - crows? ravens? - shambled over the rocks or swished overhead so close that we could hear the wind in their feathers. I think they might have been disappointed when we rose from a post-prandial snooze against a huge rock; they may have been looking forward to a mid-afternoon snack...

I was alarmed by the fact that my tendons seem to have gone like perished elastic since I last louped down this glen; the recently sprained ankle certainly made life more precarious despite the fact that it held up until the last stretch near the Garbh Allt. I found myself quoting Hamlet: And now my sinews, bear me stiffly up ...

This morning, they are merely stiff. And I have a blister on the ball of my foot. But I have already slipped into the Arran mode of not caring too much about eating out, not caring that shorts don't really do much for my looks any more, and I think today will involve another picnic and another walk. Seaside today, I think .... Blackwaterfoot? King' Caves? The wonderful butcher in the village?

Life's hard, innit?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Home, home ... In the glen

It's an odd feeling to be here - and an annoying feeling not to be able to send a photo of here to the blog: for some reason, despite an excellent signal, my phone has decided it can't cope with blogs and I don't have a lead for my camera here. Ah well. Aficionados of Glen Rosa, on Arran, can visualise for themselves the small white cottage to the right of the track, just before the campsite - the last house in the glen as you head for the Garbh Allt and the hills. And we are here, for a week.

I've been sitting outside on the wooden seat against the white-painted stone wall of this old cottage listening the the birds and the silence that enfolds their song. Last night, on a final visit to the garden in the gloaming, I found a rabbit calmly cleaning his paws, and this morning early there were two of them wetting their bottoms on the dew. (Actually I think it rained a bit in the night, but dew sounds more poetic) The Dutch Venture Scouts who were camping by the burn below us were admirably silent in the night, and by the time we surfaced this morning had folded their tents and stolen away. The summit of Goatfell, just visible from the garden gate, is clear and the morning calm.

What is so amazing for me is the sensation of living halfway to one of my favourite places, in the middle of the surroundings that sum up all I love about Arran. In a moment I shall make some coffee and take it out to that bench, and then we shall potter down to Brodick in search of a paper (no, not that paper). A spot of lunch, then off to walk another glen; we'll save the length of Glen Rosa for a day when we feel more energetic. In the meanwhile, I shall enjoy just being here.

And there's Wifi in the cottage. Joy!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Chew, don't swallow.

Another blog post, another novel. It's not that I've been devouring fiction more than usual, more a failure to blog that brings this about. I began Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin before I went to France - a mistake, as it is a fat book and not mine own, so I didn't want to stuff it into my flight bag. I had just begun to feel at home in the complexities of the tale when I left, and it took me a while to get back into it, for there are different voices narrating the components of Iris and Laura Chase's life together and I was, frankly, confused.

I think it was the effort required that initially put me off reading a book that's sat on the bookshelf for long enough to acquire a sun-tanned lower half (sorry, Morgane) - but it was self-disgust that kept me at it this time. I don't want to subsist on Mills & Boone in my declining years, after all ...

Iris Chase is remembering, as her body ages and her heart gives warnings of mortality. She is recalling the circumstances of her younger sister's death, and in doing this tells the story of their childhood together and their adult fates. As Iris is now old, the story covers much of the twentieth century - wars happen and mark the novel's protagonists, political events hinder their aspirations, society changes and with it their own lives.

The blind assassin of the title appears in the strange fiction that runs through the novel - much as the odd story of the sorcerer in Oranges are not the Only Fruit - but seems to seep out into reality as Laura Chase suffers in real life only to survive as a legend. Newspaper items surface as a contemporary commentary on Iris' memories, and Atwood's mastery of tense and person, of location and mood, pervades the whole, as it did in Alias Grace. I feel I've had an introduction to two centuries of Canada after these two books - and want to re-read the classics I read twenty years ago to check on what I found there.

Another holiday book for when you know you won't be disturbed - a book to chew rather than to swallow, and deeply satisfying.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room

I've always had a difficulty with books entirely written in a voice with which I'm uneasy. I never managed, for example, to read The Color Purple all the way through, because the narrator's English was so heavily Deep-South that the spelling of it gave me a headache. I managed with Sunset Song, but that is a masterpiece. And I managed with Room, by Emma Donoghue, although I nearly gave up after the first ten pages. And maybe the fact that I didn't points to the masterly handling that makes this book extraordinary.

We all read in horror, watch the news with unbelieving avidity, when a story breaks of someone held hostage, sexually abused, exploited, and then, miraculously, discovered and liberated. We unite in condemnation of the abusers, and wonder at the shadowy figures of their victims - but we don't often think about the effect on their lives of what they've been through. They're free, and we thank God, or the police, and move on.

This novel forces you to stay in captivity, physical and mental. It is told by Jack, who is five and was born in the room where he lives with his mother, Ma. He watches carefully regulated television, but the rest of his experience is of the confined space in which they live - a space where the beeps of the security lock on the door herald the nightly visits of Old Nick, the provider of Sunday Treats and the abuser of his mother - and Jack's father. The five-year-old's perception of what he experiences means that for a while after reading the book you too start seeing things differently, and even when he is able to experience Outside for the first time he has his own particular interpretation of what he finds there.

Jack is a captivating and fascinating narrator who has no judgement to pass on his prison because it is all that he knows. By the time he cuts off his long hair and finds that he still has the strength to cope with the world, we too have developed a changed perspective of our lives.

A book group would have a ball with this disturbing and engrossing novel.

Friday, July 01, 2011

End of an era

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Ok, that's a hackneyed header. And it's in today's local paper - but my era is different. Everyone is discussing the end of the car ferry service from Gourock to Dunoon pier; I travelled on one of the last crossings on Thursday. But the era I'm talking about is personal, for we arrived in Dunoon at the same time as the car ferries Juno and Jupiter - the ship in the pic - and my trip t'other day was on MV Saturn, which started on the Rothesay run three years later, in 1977. So as well as wondering, along with the rest of us, how the replacement passenger service will work in the winter (we know already that one of the two ships, the Ali Cat, goes off in a breeze) and how big the queues of cars for Western Ferries will be (to say nothing of Cowal Games weekend) I'm reflecting on the years since 1974 from a personal perspective.

We came here with a 5 week old baby and moved into a school-owned council house in Ardenslate. Our first morning was marked by the main fuse's blowing and our worry that as the leccy came via the Hydro-electric, based in Perth, we wouldn't get it fixed till the Monday. (Didn't know they had local fixers ...). We had no telly and no phone - and no mobiles or internet, remember. I was alone with a five-week-old baby, once Mr B had gone to work; I didn't drive and I only knew one person and it rained a lot. I got the phone by stressing the baby-panics, and the telly arrived a few days later and provided some sanity. The church provided the rest. (Strange, but true).

And of course time passed. We met people in droves, and more importantly made good friends. We started a choir - the Hesperians - and performed with them. We bought the house we still live in and I learned to drive. The baby grew up and another one appeared and followed him; they both left at the age of 17 and never lived here again. (That's what happens to clever kids here. They go. Some return, but more stay gone). I returned to teaching and for five days a week we could have been living anywhere: a school's a school's a school. The American navy loomed large for a while - especially when I was big in the local CND - and then left. The town appeared less rented, more stable. New houses appeared in fields, sometimes with scant regard for the tendency of said fields to drown in the winter. Generations of school pupils passed through our lives, and some of them surfaced on Facebook.

And now I'm back where I started, in some ways. I don't work - at least, I don't do paid work and huvtaes - and the church is still the constant in a changing life. We still sing, though the Hesperian men have gone the way of all flesh and we're now a women's group. There are occasional babies in our house in the shape of visiting grandchildren, though the original babies show little inclination to return. In my Glasgow childhood, I always hankered for a life involving sea and hills; my own children seem drawn to cities and urban pursuits.

But through all that - a life, really - the Cal Mac ferries came and went, easily visible from my window. Now they're away, and the new boat still hasn't put in an appearance. And I can't help wondering if somewhere, hidden in the ferry saga, there isn't a metaphor for life.

But I haven't worked it out yet.