Saturday, December 31, 2011


Last read of the year
I realise, through the Lemsip-induced haze of another cold, that I've been remiss in reviewing books recently. It's not that I've given up reading - nothing can replace that comfortable joy of having a good book on the go - but simply that other things, usually music, family or church, got in the way. So here, on the last day of the year, is a round-up of stuff I've read recently.

Unless, by Carol Shields, was an odd book. It was beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading it immensely - but realise, at several months' distance, that I had to check the Amazon review to remind me of one of the threads. But I loved the involvement in the mind of writer heroine Reta, her anxieties about her eldest daughter who drops out of university and sits on a street corner in Toronto with a placard saying "Goodness", her tussles with her insensitive publisher, and I was completely convinced by her wonderful conversations with her friends.

After that, I had a quick scamper through some old Penguins. Sweet Danger and The Crime at Black Dudley, both by Margery Allingham, convinced me that I was right to consider The Tiger in the Smoke the best I've read of her books - the style remained seductive, but the plots were pretty daft. They were really old Penguins too - the original green and white covers, with yellowing pages, foxed at the edges.

One of my birthday books I had added to my wish list purely on the grounds of its Amazon description. The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is a great tome (I read it in hardback - quite risky reading in bed when sleepy, lest it fall on one's nose) covering the span of almost a century with complete conviction and mastery. In one sense, it is a novel about a biography - a biography of someone we have already met in the opening chapters, just before the outbreak of World War 1. But it is also about Englishness, and about how people change over time, and about manners and customs and society ... and it is beautifully written and just challenging enough to keep me flipping back to check my memory against that of various protagonists.

Then I was lent A.D. Miller's Snow Drops as a suitably small paperback for a plane journey. This kept me riveted for two flights and the time in between, and I agreed with the reviewer who said it 'reads like Graham Greene on steroids'. Snowdrops are apparently the corpses that appear when the snow of the Russian winter melts, and the winter in Moscow is as much a character in this story of love and betrayal as Nick , the English lawyer, and Masha, the Russian girl he loves. The writer used to be The Economist's Moscow correspondent, and he convinces with every word. As I look forward to a trip to Russia in the coming year, I can't help wondering if 'grandma's summer' will be over and the cold air will already be threatening the winter to come...

I finished the year with another Josephine Tey, having so unexpectedly enjoyed The Franchise Affair. I had tried The Daughter of Time in my teens - I have a feeling my mother gave me it when I was off school with some bug - and completely failed to become interested in this tale of a convalescent detective solving the mystery of Richard the Third from his hospital bed. Who killed the Princes in the Tower? Perhaps they weren't killed at all. Was Richard the horror depicted by Shakespeare? Check the origin of his sources. The book is intricate, painstaking and fascinating. I shall never look at history in the same way again. The mature me loved it, and I finished it yesterday. The picture above is of the edition - now 50 years old - that I read; it seems to me a suitable illustration for an end-of-year blog post.

I have now started one of my Christmas books - two pages of The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest already have me feeling more cheerful about this wet Ne'erday - and there are others waiting in the wings. Now, off the computer and back to the books ...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe ...

The kitchen is warm. No - it is actually unbearably hot. The erstwhile poet/musician, transformed for the nonce into Domestic Goddess, is hard at work. The oven is purring, for she has begun the day by roasting beetroot. There are still ominously red drips splattered over the white sink, as if Lady Macbeth had been washing her hands there, and sticky red blobs show where the cranberry sauce was poured, splashily, like a fine wine, into the warmed jars. (The DG was unhappy with the first batch, the cranberries having been over-long in the freezer, and has ditched it and made another lot.)

The heat is loaded with smells, individually rather wonderful, but together somewhat worrying. The burbling from the cooker-top indicates that it is time for the spiced prunes to come off the heat - star anise, honey smells - and it is time to find the preserving pan. Why, in the name of Christmas, the preserving pan? Well, the DG is very fussy about marmalade, and has just opened the last jar ... Ok, she uses tinned oranges, but there are a couple of red grapefruit to chop up (red again, and sticky) and careful calculations to be made about quantities of water, sugar ...

Why does she never write these things down? Why, indeed, did she not make the marmalade last week? Well may you ask. Could be the same penchant for distraction that has Mr B the musician back at the piano tinkering with an arrangement (don't ask) instead of getting to the church while it's still daylight for a spot of practice. He has already seduced the DG into running through a particularly challenging alto line (Tavener) for Midnight Mass - the other two singers are turning up tomorrow for the (only) rehearsal.

The DG finds herself thinking of Monty Python, as she shrieks at Mr B, currently in full composer/arranger/performer mode. 'Get up to the church!' (He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!) She tests the marmalade, which seems to wrinkle in a satisfactory fashion, slops it into more warmed jars, screws on the tops and leaves them to cool before attempting to wipe off the sticky bits. (More stickiness ...) The preserving pan is incandescent, and defiantly sticky. She fills it with hot suds and leaves it on the stove for when she feels stronger ... Oh God. The brandy butter ...

A friend asked me this morning how it came about that I felt I had so much to do when I was going away on Christmas Day. Quite apart from the fact that all I'm not cooking is the main course - and I always did that with a glass of champagne in my hand - I think part of the trouble is that just right now my head is full of poetry and music and I want to write and sing and .... and ....

Maybe I really need to be a student again. And 45 years younger.

But then I might have nothing to say.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thinking of angels

Oh, do not try to make it ordinary
or even think of credibility -
this visitation by the angel
or many
to shepherds in their freezing fields
or Mary -
no: I see hosts of snowy wings
descending in impossible sweeps
of power, I see
faces taut and gleaming, and those
piercing eyes that penetrate the soul
so that breath fails, and when it
passes there remains a vacuum -
and perhaps just a single

©C.M.M. 12/11

Dedicated to the choir of St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, for their singing of A Babe is Born (Matthias)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Solstice

The silver tree is a white ghost
in the dimpled white of last week’s snow
as the pale glow in the eastern sky
shows where the short-lived sun will rise
while night withdraws itself to where
a thin moon hangs above the hills.

The coloured lights of the coming feast
Shine in the silent streets below;
The last cries of the drunken night
Are echoes, and the drinkers sleep.
The birds wait, frozen on the tree.
A prayer stirs in the coldest heart.

© C.M.M. 12/11

Sunday, December 18, 2011

See amid the winter ... ice

8+1 in Holy Trinity

What word do I choose? What word expresses the elation of this afternoon? For all that words are my business, I don't have one. Singing just about captured it, but we've sung our songs and drunk our mulled wine and for at least 90 Dunoon people the Christmas season has begun in joy.

The weather was perfect - lethally so. From cars colliding on the bridge in the morning's ice to the resulting worries that no-one would venture out and up our hill, we were prepared to sing our songs to a hardy few at this afternoon's carol service, but before we'd even begun our warmup they were piling in. Aged ladies on zimmers negotiated the carpark and tried to get said zimmers into a pew (no, Jeannie, leave it at the end and slide in on your bottom), children came and went in santa hats, family and friends arrived in number along with several people we'd never seen before.

8+1 led the singing - Andrew suggested that we were now nine, but I tend to think there's a logic there - and did a bit on their own as well, taking us from The Christ Child's Lullaby to the Calypso Carol without batting an eye. The babies, toddlers and assorted weans kept amazingly silent during the music. I handed over my reading to my pal, but found that I could sing after all, laryngitis or no, and began to enjoy myself. And one reader near the end of the service had us all feeling we'd heard the Christmas story for the very first time, such was the impact of his reading.

And then there was mulled wine, and folk braved the cold to use the Portaloo, standing like the Tardis just outside the church, and car keys were passed around as people tried to leave and cars were juggled in the icy car park. There were indeed over 90 people in Holy Trinity today, and it felt warm and special and joyous whatever the thermometer said.

Deo Gratias!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Words, words, words...

I've made a belated discovery about the potency - or otherwise - of words. Words of carols, to be specific, and words of other choral music. Yes, words have always been my business, so you'd think I might have found this out sooner, but there you are.

It began, I think, with a phone call from the organist at the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae. Old friend that he is, he wanted to share with us the success at their Advent Carol service of a piece John had written years ago - Advent Invocation - to words that I had first scribbled down on the back of a bill as we drove over the moor road from the Claonaig ferry, years ago. He told us how he'd put the words into the order of service, and how he felt that had helped people's appreciation of the whole.

A short while after that, I found myself typing out the words of familiar Christmas carols and hymns (for a congregational booklet, since you ask - and yes, we have the licence!) in the corporate rush to get everything done on time. Even words that I had sung for the past half century suddenly had to be checked, punctuation put in the right places - and suddenly I began to see the words as if for the first time. Many of them are not what I would write for now, but I kept having sudden glimpses into the minds and imaginations of the original authors - and it was startling in its newness.

And then there was my own Advent Song. Following our friend's example, we asked for the words to go into the Order for Evensong, so that people could follow them as we sang. And for the first time I've had people talking about the words of the piece almost as much as they do about the music. Now, I feel that the music is by far the greater accomplishment, for I know how much goes into it as opposed to the sudden rush of blood to the head that produces the words - I'm not a hard worker when it comes to that sort of thing - so I feel slightly guilty. But I'm glad to have the piece taken as a whole, and appreciated as a whole, and thrilled that it seems to be doing so well on YouTube.

In a way, my Advent this year has been shaped by this piece. But I don't think that's a bad thing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mortal thoughts

I was at the funeral today of someone we've known all the time we've lived here, a stalwart of the kirk. The church was packed. And it got me thinking mortal thoughts, and that it's probably a lot easier for everyone if, as this friend did, you make a few stipulations before you pop off. So here we go:

First of all, if I'm still worshipping at Holy T, and if the building is still standing, that's where I want things to happen. Whoever takes the service must be known to do a good job with funerals - the present incumbent will do nicely, thank you, if I take my leave sooner rather than later - and be prepared to use the Liturgy (I kinda like 1987 or the Scottish Prayer Book, and I'd really like a Requiem Mass). If there is still an organ in church, it should be played by a good organist, and if neither is to hand I think I'll settle for a CD or two played over a decent speaker at a bold volume. (Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary and the Kontakion for the departed come to mind ...)

If there are good singers around, I'd like to think of them singing - Be still my soul, There is a Redeemer, that sort of thing - but if everyone is ancient/tone-deaf I think it'd be better if there was no communal singing at all.

But most of all, I don't want anyone to stand up and tell God about me. God knows all there is to know about me, and there is no need to labour the point. If someone wants to tell other people about me, that's fine, as long as it's someone who actually knew me. And I don't want to be wheeled out on a trolley, and I have a horror of crematoria.

I might even get round to writing this all down properly, somewhere - but for now, this is me letting off a small puff of steam while I'm still here. 'Nuff said, eh?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Off the hook...

Me, Morgane, Catriona and, yes, baby Anna on our camels, Mich... on Twitpic

Ok. I know I've been fretting about this holiday my offspring has taken his family on. But goodness, that does look like fun. And it's sunny!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advent song in audio

For all the lovely people who commented so appreciatively about the new anthem this week, I've made my first attempt at uploading a video to YouTube. The photos are all from this time of year, most of them taken from my window as a flaming dawn broke, or in Holy Trinity church where the recording was made. We're both delighted that people liked it as much as they did.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent Song

Look, God, look
in the vastness of your dark
hear this song
in the chorus of the world
where I sing
for the glory of your coming
held by love
as the music pours from me
a flame within
as the night falls around me
hear my prayer
and come through the darkness
hold me waiting
as you wait to be born.

©C.M.M. 11/05
I wrote these words six years ago. Advent for me, as I've probably blogged before, is a wonderfully Celtic experience born of darkness and tiny lights and being out on the edge of the hugeness of what to the ancients must have seemed a limitless sea. I cannot conceive of Advent in the Antipodes. Not long after I wrote it, Mr B, aka the musician John McIntosh, mentioned that he might like to set it to music, but it took him to this year to do it, and it was finished about three weeks ago. It is quite, quite lovely.

Today it was performed for the first time. And I really mean that: until this afternoon we had never heard it with the four voices for which it was written. But today we had an Evensong at Holy Trinity, a variant on the traditional Anglican choral service in which a quartet - including me and Mr B - sang the anthem, the responses and a plainsong psalm with a harmonised response for the congregation. The church was dimly lit - a combination of half our usual lighting, all the candles, the red heaters that give at least the illusion of warmth, and tiny lights clipped to our music stands - and the atmosphere electric. When we stood at the back of the church to begin with the Matin Responsory, the silence was absolute; when Andrew prayed, the silences between his words fell like a blessing; when we sang the Advent Song I felt once again the limitless power that takes over when we are all totally immersed in the moment. There was for me the additional dimension of hearing people take such care over my words - it's an awesome thing to write something and have it handed back to you so beautifully. 

Andrew's brief homily reminded us in no uncertain terms that Advent is not Christmas. I don't think anyone there this afternoon was in any doubt about the magic of the season: the exquisite tension of the waiting, the longing. The great sound of the final hymn - Lo, He Comes - came like an explosion of emotion. And when it was over, and we finally tore ourselves away from the place where the  barriers between earth and heaven had grown very thin indeed, it was snowing. 

On a day such as today, I would be no-one else, and nowhere else. 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

New passport, new pictures

My new passport arrived yesterday, and its predecessor, duly snipped, this morning. So I'll start by saying how impressed I am with the speed of the renewal process - under a fortnight if you use the Post Office check and send option. Ok, you have to pay for that, but when you've just booked a rather expensive holiday and then been told you need at least 6 months on your passport, the stress quivers into being. That's the good news. The bad news is that I hate my new, biometric passport. My old, bendy friend with the acceptable photo (taken when you were allowed to smile) has been replaced by a rigid booky with the ghastly - and slightly ghostly after processing - scowl of the aging me. The expression is probably very suitable - it's the "hurry the **** up. I'm going to miss my flight" face that most immigration people see, but it's not a pretty sight.

The pages of the passport are, in their own way, pretty. The first page - the one that talks about Her Britannic Majesty - has a picture of a bit of an oak tree, overhanging a row of slightly decrepit, sleepy-England cottages, in three colours. Or maybe four. The photo page is now near the front, and has an even more ghostly repetition of the photo facing it, while the other pages all have different images from all over this earth, this realm,this ... whatever. Some of them could be vaguely Scottish. They are wonderfully detailed in a pale, etched fashion, and I can only think they are to deter forgers.

I still don't like it, but I've realised I could probably while away time in the security queue by admiring the pictures. Always the silver lining ...

Friday, December 02, 2011

Ferry bad indeed

Today, the Firth of Clyde is calm after a week of wind and rain. The photo above was taken on Monday morning and shows the Argyll Flyer, with one of the Western Ferries in the background, passing Dunoon's East Bay heading for the pier into the wind that was gusting from the south and pushing the waves upriver. Study that photo, for it is one of a series that shows just how alarming this crossing can be even in a sea that is not particularly spectacular. It proved to be the last passenger ferry to Dunoon that day, and two days later it was again cancelled around the same time in much less wind. I tweeted about the second cancellation at the time, and had this response on Twitter from our MSP, Mike Russell:
Now, I appreciate the fact that a response was made, but feel the need to point out that it's not the correct response. Hence this post.

Argyll Ferries ( a subsidiary of Cal Mac) cannot possibly "up their game" with these boats. They are, quite simply, too small. It takes only a very moderate sea to have them pitching and rolling. When they do this, the sea sweeps over the limited deck area - so you can't go out for some fresh air without the risk of drowning. No, you stay in the cabin, unable to see the horizon, and hope desperately that you land before you throw up. Even in the summer, there were tales of mothers having to buy clothes in charity shops for their children who had puked down their own clothes on the crossing, and only yesterday we were told of elderly passengers unable to use the onboard lavatory for fear of falling and breaking a hip - and suffering the indignity of wetting themselves where they sat.

So much for the onboard conditions. But there are many more ramifications. The frequent cancellations mean that people in Dunoon can no longer trust the transport system to get them home if they travel to Glasgow - to work, to shop, to remind themselves that there is life outside the grey confines of their town - by train. There is a spanking new railway station under construction at Gourock, but at this rate few of us will use it, when the only way to ensure that you will get home at night is take your car and use Western Ferries. This flies in the face of all the rhetoric about thinking Green, using public transport if possible, saving fuel and not polluting our environment. As it stands, I would not even think of visiting Inverclyde hospital, which I can practically see from my house, without taking my car: a friend with a newly-broken wrist was stranded in Gourock on Wednesday morning on her way home from the plaster clinic, having just missed what turned out to be the last passenger ferry of the day. She had then to make her way to Western Ferries and have someone meet her with a car.

On Wednesday something else happened to confirm my growing suspicions that we were trapped in Dunoon. The road over the Rest and Be Thankful was closed; anyone driving from Glasgow would have an extra 26 miles to go. Last weekend we drove that road, in the fear that the ferries might be off - it's no fun to arrive at McInroy's point and find that you have to retrace your journey to the Erskine Bridge and on into the dark. The flashing lights, warning of increased landslip danger, had us beetling up the road into the hills with the tops of our heads cringing and the full beams on to see any obstacle that might have dumped itself on the road. The journey from Edinburgh seemed absurdly long, a good hour longer than usual in lashing rain and gales.

We realised this week that if this situation had obtained at the time when we moved to Dunoon in the early 1970s, we would never have come here. We realise with horror that a time will come when we are no longer willing or able to drive these roads in the dark - and that time is drawing closer. We feel like prisoners in the town our family grew up in. We have begun to think seriously of leaving before house prices go through the floor. The sad thing is that things were looking up - the number of people living here and working elsewhere, or vice versa, has increased, new houses have sprung up, the approaches to Gourock have improved. Now, suddenly, we've been dumped.

Many people - myself included - seem to have thought that an SNP government would care enough about the people who voted for them to give us a decent transport system. We're told till we're sick that we don't need another car ferry to the town. Fine. The shopkeepers would disagree, but I don't run a local shop and I'll stick to my own perceptions. We may not need another car ferry, because Western Ferries do a great job and run a decent timetable till a sensible time of night. But we do need a bigger passenger ferry, one that can cope with the rough seas and not go off at the first puff of wind. And if a bigger ferry could actually carry some cars just because it's a bigger boat - fine. Good ballast. We have the new pier, the breakwater ... and a couple of pathetically small pleasure boats to use it.

We deserve better. Otherwise this town will die.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Magic in the Mass?

I've just been at a Roman Catholic mass for the first time in about 20 years. It wasn't your normal mass - it was the priest's Silver Jubilee and the church was packed, even on a hellish evening when the wind threatened to tear the car door from my hand and maybe take the hand with it ...

But that's enough of the gruesome maunderings. It wasn't just the local faithful who turned out in number - there was a great group of clergy (including two familiar from Island Parish on the telly) and the bishop and friends and family and former flock, all crammed into a church that by the end of the evening was so hot that the woman in front of me sank to her knees not in a moment of extreme piety but to avoid passing out. Before the mass, we were given a quick run-through of the bits of the music that might be unfamiliar, though in truth only one hymn was known to me and I was reduced, in the absence of any music, to a feeble twittering.

But what chiefly interested me was the completely different atmosphere from what I'm accustomed to. (And no, I don't just mean the heat.) The extreme rapidity of proceedings - responses hardly out of your mouth before we were off again - the matter-of-fact tones used by all the clergy, bishop included, and the music which in its banality defied any attempt at aural learning. The women in front of me who chatted at intervals throughout the proceedings, regardless of what was happening. And the new liturgy, introduced, I believe, only last week, was extraordinarily like what we have in our 1970 Grey Book, but with confusing details that caught this unwary Piskie out. But why, in the name of all that's holy (and I mean that) do they talk about Jesus taking the "chalice" at the Last Supper? Would it be likely that the vessel used then, as opposed to what it held, would have been accorded reverence at that moment? I'd be interested to know the thinking there.

Above all, I felt the sense of ... confidence. This is a church that still behaves as if Christian faith is the norm, and church attendance even more so. It spills over into demeanour, voices, physical attitudes. It is very unlike what I know and love in my own precarious little church. And what worries interests me is that I would no more have been attracted by it than I was by its opposite number in Scotland. There's no magic.

And I need the magic.