Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Problem-finding mission

I've been spending some of this awful weather hibernating over the computer. Surprise, surprise. But every now and then I hit on something that starts me thinking - perhaps also a surprise - and that happened today. I was reading a post by a former pupil (I just throw that in) about his work in his church circles - a post that was in turn inspired by a TEDx talk given by one Ewan McIntosh. So far, so incestuous, you may think. But bear with me.

The talk suggests new ways of engaging with young people by asking them to find problems as opposed to solving problems made up for them by their teacher. (You'll remember, I'm sure, problems about how long it takes a man with a shovel to fill up a hole opposed to how long it takes four men who take a teabreak ...) Stewart's post talks about what church tells young people, instead of providing the wisdom to answer the questions they ask out of their own interests. But what if you work within a church that seems lacking in young people? What if you live in an area where the majority of young people leave at age 17 and don't return? Much of Scotland is like this - do you anguish over how to attract young teens, spend your emotional and physical energy on it, change the whole focus of your church, only to have the  school leavers disappear just as they become involved?

I'm not saying no to any of this, actually. Just asking. But in my diocesan travels I meet people of my own age and older who despair of their congregation's future because "we're all so old... we'll never attract young people". And in a way I think they're right - because we're presenting them with a ready-made expectation that they will somehow find themselves throbbing with youthful vitality and guitar music if they want to survive. What if we ask the people in our churches what they'd really like to see happen? What if we begin from the place where we recognise that in fact the new faces that occasionally turn up belong to people who are reaching the age when suddenly religion seems to matter more? That because we live in a semi-rural or even a remote area, the chances are that our new people are going to be retiring or downsizing or escaping from the stress of urban living - or are going to be the parents of babies who maybe need a respite from that particular stress (my own route into parish involvement all these years ago)?

The fact is that today we're in the middle of a strike brought on by threats to pensions - pensions that are having to stretch for many more years than in the past as people like me inconveniently refuse to shuffle off this mortal coil a couple of years after we stop earning. You can often bank on a good 20 years of useful life out of your average 50-something - and that useful life at a point where most people would confess to at least a flicker of timor mortis. Taking that as a starting point, what about setting out to engage with the problems and interests of that particular demographic? Instead of worrying a despairing bunch of elderly women - sadly, there are always more of them around - about how to fill their church with yoof, why not ask them to think of the problems that they really do understand - and then find the solutions for them?

And let's, whatever we do, let's help them all to discover how lively and unthreatening communication technology is. Let's take our tools of mission, the ones some of us no longer find any more remarkable than the telephone, and demonstrate how they can help the lonely, the bored, the housebound - how they can bring them together, share prayers and music and photos and chat and serious discussion and calls for help. And then they too could share ideas from TEDx talks ...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The first candle ...

Goodness, that was great! As I said in my last post, I love Advent - and it began today in fine style up the hill at Holy T. From the lighting of the first purple candle in the Advent Wreath - and if you look closely you will see that the new candles arrived in the nick of time - to the exuberant singing of "Lo, he comes with clouds descending", we were on an emotional rollercoaster, urged on by Kevin Our Bishop on his second visit to us.

Urged to pitch our tents facing the rising sun, intrigued by the vision of the newly-re-licensed Lay Team as tent-pitchers extraordinaires, delighted by +Kevin's vision of him throwing back his youthful locks in order to see and by his donning of a wonderful pink and purple "preaching scarf" (you can see it adorning his crozier in the sadly fuzzy pic taken in mid-sing at the end of the service) - by the time we staggered to the back of the church for coffee and buns we felt we'd been on a journey already.

Just as it should be, in fact - even if we have another four weeks to go.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Advent of Advent

The mornings are dark; the darkness returns early. Tonight it is chilly and more gales are threatened. The sea is restless and the trees groan. Living here, it seems unreasonable to have a tidy Advent wreath, with neat flowers or tidily trimmed holly or even - shudder - the plastic variety. No, we go more for the exuberant greenery that has not a little of the pagan about its appearance, complemented by the wonderfully suitable pink berries from the cotoneaster (I think) in the church grounds. Arguments have raged in past years about the colour of candles to be used in such a wreath, and I maintain to this day that God put that bush in the grounds to encourage us to the purple and pink variety, but that is another story.

The photo shows the initial stages of the process: find your greenery. I am unwilling to give the exact location of the trees that provided ours this year, as I and my accomplice should not really have been doing this thing, but we were careful - and some of the best trees actually had fallen bits that were ideal for our needs. On this occasion we deterred any witnesses by having with us a small and wailing child, though the best deterrent was probably the weather forecast. At the moment of the photo, I had just been deluged with water from the branches. You can see that I am a cheerful, uncomplaining sort ...

Anyway, the wreath is constructed and looks rather fine. Apart, that is, for the candles - the person who takes delivery of them had not yet produced this year's box, and we had to make do with purple ones, of which we have a goodly number left over from other years. (The uninitiated should note that when Hayes and Finch sends out Advent candles, they allow for people to have four purple and one white, as well as the pink one for Gaudete Sunday. If you use the pink one, you build up a stock of unused purple candles). Perhaps I shall manage a photo on Sunday if the new ones have turned up. If you really cannot control your impatience, you can see a past effort here, though I note that it looks considerably less fulsome than later offerings have become. And the berries look more red than pink. I shall endeavour to take a pic in daylight.

I love Advent. Can't you tell?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A plug - and a word of explanation

I've just stuck a new poem on Frankenstina. I haven't written much recently - it's a bit like getting up early to go swimming: once you're in the way of it it seems somehow easier, more natural, but if you've stopped for a bit it seems a totally unlikely thing to do. This one, however, occupied me in a hospital waiting room, where I was merely the chauffeur and not really involved in the reason for the visit. The room was full, most of the time - a swirling mix of Glasgow humanity, some obviously suffering, some quiet and staring into space, some flustered because they'd missed their names for whatever reason. We in fact missed the name of my friend, but that was because we were talking - four people for one appointment is far too social to be serious.

But when I was left alone, I couldn't resist a bit of the furtive note-taking of the "accursed observer", as Edwin Morgan would have it, and as the time passed I found it taking shape as the poem. The title is partly in amused homage to an old friend, who used to talk about the time he had once spent in what he called the Suffering General, in the old days when all the hospital was contained in the Victorian building that now fronts a building site where the new Southern General is rising among the chaos. However, it also reinforces for me the universality of suffering, and how we are all, from the most self-contained to the most vocally expressive, reduced to the same state of helpless passivity in the hospital setting, and how we will all, one day, arrive at the terminus that for now I am happy to forget.

Now - on with the journey...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taxed out of pocket

For years I never thought about income tax. It came off my salary, codes were issued, things remained much the same. I retired, new codes were issued, I still didn't have to think about it. Until I began working in an intermittent, self-employed fashion, and everything seemed to unravel. And strangely enough, I'm not actually referring to the tedious business of filling in an online tax return - though goodness knows it's enough to put me off working any more. But the very act of sending in a couple of returns seems to have done something to upset the tax machine (I believe they use computers to check things nowadays. That figures.)

In September I received two tax codes - apparently on the same SSPA pension. One was the usual code, one was unfamiliar. I phoned to enquire. It transpired that this was in fact an error; someone (something?) had got it into its head that I had two pensions and they were determined to tax the second to within an inch of its worth. They would send me another, correct code and all would be well.

Except that it isn't. Well, I mean. Because by the time they made this discovery - or I made it for them - it was only two days before the deduction was made from my pension, and it was too late to change it. The result was that my latest pension payment is some £600 less than it should be. Today I rang again, just to have the satisfaction of telling someone I was pissed off at this. The scenario I painted was that of the poor pensioner, with Christmas coming ... you get the picture. Were they maybe running a profitable enterprise on the side and calling it a mistake? I ended my litany of complaint with a question. "Don't you think that's iniquitous?" I asked. Long silence. I tried again. "Don't you think that's really bad?" Well yes, allowed the woman at the other end, it was not good but there was nothing she personally could do about it. The money would eventually be repaid, but I would have to do without it in the meantime.

Which of course I knew. I told her it would be really good to contact someone who could do something about it. Like a wee recompense?  She didn't know if that would be possible, but she gave me an address. She had no name to give me, as there was no single person who would deal with my case. I observed that this was a pity, as it was always good to have someone to nag by name, and that perhaps a bit of undivided attention on individual cases would avoid some of the errors that abound. She didn't reply.

The call was, of course, recorded for control purposes. The wifie wouldn't be likely to say anything too definite. But I may pursue that address, just for the hell of it. You never know ...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Remembering stories

This was where my parents had reached that evening...
I've been reading Rev Ruth's remembrance memories (if that's not tautologous) and found some of the memories that were part of my childhood flooding back. I was born just after the last World War ended, as anyone who's followed my father's Wartime Letters will know, so the memories are not my own, but they were among the first stories I ever heard. Stories, for example, of a time when, because they'd heard the All Clear and it was a beautiful evening, my parents went for a walk up Novar Drive in Glasgow. Just as they reached the top of the hill, the sirens sounded again and shrapnel began falling all around them. They clutched their tin hats to their heads and ran, apparently, laughing at the horror of it, back to their flat. This was a top flat in a red sandstone tenement, and their custom was to sit out the raids in the lobby press which protected them from flying glass (it was windowless) but precious little else. My mother calmed her nerves by doing the crosswords in old copies of the Glasgow Herald which were stashed in the cupboard, and her stomach with Rennies.

The rest of the inhabitants of 66 Novar Drive apparently congregated in the same cupboard of the bottom flat, four floors beneath them. History does not relate how they reacted my my father's assurance that they were all doomed there because if the building collapsed my mother's piano - now mine - would land on their heads and crush them all. (There is a full account of the worst action to hit Hyndland here.)

Tales like this, and that of the woman found carting her front windows out in two buckets and telling them that she now had a diamond-studded piano, made it all sound somehow exciting to a small child, but even then I could sense the horror of my mother's lone vigil in that same house after my father had gone overseas with the RAF, to live in a tiny tent in the Western Desert. Her own parents lived only 10 minutes' walk away, and she often stayed with them, but every now and again had to return home to look after it and ensure that it wasn't requisitioned for rehousing in her absence.

When the war was still a recent memory and the gap sites from demolished buildings still somewhere to play and the underground air-raid shelters even better, I used to wonder how anyone coped with being normal while it went on. I still wonder - just as I wonder how the families of serving soldiers do today. I think they were made of stern stuff, my parents - and I can't help thinking their life together after it was all over must have been an unthinkable joy for them.

And that's worth remembering too.

War Requiem

I listened this evening to the last part of Britten's War Requiem, in the recording featured here, digitally remastered and sounding amazingly new. I first experienced it in the spring of 1964, when it was performed in the Kelvin Hall arena in Glasgow, in that extraordinary time when Glasgow didn't have a decent concert hall after the destruction by fire of the St Andrew's Halls. I was studying at the time for Higher Music, and a few of us went to hear the work because one of our teachers was singing in the choir and had been talking about it for weeks.

In that one evening I learned a great deal. In the printed programme I was able to take home two new sets of words to set me alight: the poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of the Mass. Both were completely new to me. In fact, I had read hardly any twentieth century poetry at that time, and thought I didn't really care about poetry. And as for religion ....

Tonight I was struck once more by the complete aptness of the music for the words, for the scenes evoked, and for my mood. The pity of war, and the poetry - both are there. But listen to the Libera Me section and you'll hear the horror of war too - the wailing shells, the thudding guns, the pattering orisons of the rifles. No matter if history points an altered gun - the music transcends it.

If only there could be a requiem for war itself...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Another small discovery

I've mentioned before how wonderful old Penguin books are for travelling. Compact little things, with small print and little in the way of fanfare or decoration, they are just what is needed for a train journey to Glasgow, or even - as recently - a trip to the hairdresser, involving, as it does for me, a rather chancy ferry service and subsequent irritating waits when I've just missed one. The book on the right, Josephine Tey's mystery story The Franchise Affair, has been back and forward across the Clyde several times, resulting in a certain degree of dog-earing and culminating in yesterday's trip to wait for Mr B in Inverclyde Hospital. It was there that I finished it, and was so aware of the loss of my distraction that I began to make a nuisance of myself ...

But I digress. This is another book that's been on my shelf for years, and I don't know why I never got round to reading it. Published in 1948, it would have been completely contemporary in its language, mood and setting - former soldiers in all walks of civilian life but possessed of unlikely skills, life in a small English town returning to quiet normality, church and tea-shops the centre of life and gossip. The mystery concerns the accusations made against two women who live in a dilapidated big house, The Franchise, to the effect that they kidnapped and beat up the fifteen-year-old girl who accuses them. The burden of helping them falls on a local lawyer, whose quietly contented life is changed for ever as a result. The story was apparently based on a similar event from the 1800s.

I find it hard to pin down what makes me so sorry to have finished it. The language is quietly perfect, the descriptions of life in Milford, 'where the last post goes out at 3.45', effective and completely suited to be the voice of Robert Blair, bachelor, golfer and the senior partner in Blair, Hayward and Bennet. The details describe much of my childhood, so that the women in their hats and gloves step obediently into line and the subtle differences in class and breeding are as soothing as they would now seem hilariously anachronistic. Perhaps it's simply the business of feeling safe in a novel - safe from grammatical blunders as much as from any device of the plot.

The detection side of the story is less complicated and less requiring of any genius on the part of the main protagonist than many, with the result that once the last piece fell into place the result was a forgone conclusion, but the characterisation and the subsequent lives of the women and Robert himself were of sufficient interest to keep me gently involved. The novel seems at some time to have been made into a film, and I could see it being a TV series that would pander to the Downton audience (I know - there are 30 years between them, but ...). It is, however, the book I have enjoyed so thoroughly. I'm glad I discovered it, lurking there ...

Monday, November 07, 2011

Roundabout ...

Today I was made to face one of my lurking fears: the fear of roundabouts. Now before you ask, yes: I've been driving for 30-odd years, and I'm not a bad driver. I am, however, a Dunoon driver. I learned in Dunoon, I sat my test in Dunoon. I can cope with single track roads, and am quite happy on one of the most dangerous roads in the country, but motorways and big roundabouts leave me quaking and completely daunted, for there are to this day only two roundabouts - both of the mini variety - in Dunoon, and one of them is covered by Scottish Water travaux just now and has been for months. Not much practice there, then - and people tend to drive over the top of them anyway.

But today I had to undaunt myself and get to the Southern General hospital with a friend who needed to be there. The people who do such things have strewn the road through Greenock/ Port Glasgow with new roundabouts, and today whoever arranges the weather had provided a pea-soup fog to complicate my life. Throw into the mix the last roundabout before the hospital, with not one single road marking anywhere on it, and the confusion that took me back to the M8 via Braehead and its multiplicity of roundabouts, and you have the second circle of my personal hell.

But I did it. I didn't kill anyone, nor did I cause any accidents. Only one rotter hooted at me, and he wanted to speed anyway. No moral high ground for him. Funny thing is - it all looks so logical in my nice little picture. I have a feeling it's the other drivers I hate. I'd manage fine on an empty road ...