Monday, December 31, 2007

And it's goodbye ...

Christmas wrapped up
Originally uploaded by Edublogger. my granddaughter, to her parents (house feeling rather empty), to 2007 (I hate Hogmanay) and to one or two other bits of my life so far, to which I shall return in a mo. But first, I'm going to do what other bloggers do, and look back at what's happened in the past year.

First, of course, there was our American odyssey, a trip I still look back on in some wonder, from which I learned that Scotland is even smaller than I thought and that there are many, many people for whom it doesn't exist. I was Lay Rector of a Cursillo weekend. And most importantly and life-changeingly, Catriona arrived , late enough to keep up the family tradition of cutting it fine.

Apart from all that, I wrote a few more poems, in a sudden burst of ... whatever it is that makes poems happen, and had the strange experience of hearing a carol originally written with me in mind ( and some of my words) sung in front of a huge audience in a very famous venue.

But maybe the greatest change happened in the past week, when the presence of very young babies at both the Christmas morning mass and the day on which we read about the slaughter of the innocents put all ritual and all dogma into the shade and brought home the liveliness of love which lies at the heart of the Incarnation. I used to be totally hooked on all the ritual and colour of a high Anglican service - but if it lacks humanity and love it conveys nothing of the God who came to us in human form.

I shall still look for beauty, and for the music to be in tune - but ritual is made to be disrupted, and we have to be able to laugh with the angels. So here's to all the babies who made Christmas special - and reminded us where we started. Till next year ...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Big deal?

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've been reflecting on how it felt to sit in a famous venue like the Royal Albert Hall and hear Mr B's work performed to an audience of 5,000 (you can see a selection of them in the photo). I had my own small stake in the piece, having adapted the words of two of the verses from the translation of the Gaelic, so I too had my name announced before they sang. And yes, it was exciting - especially in anticipation - and yes, I felt proud.

But mostly, you know, it felt like any other gig. And I wonder if this is the point about this performance thing. If you do perform, an audience is an audience whether there are 50, 500 or 5,000 people in it, and it's important to perform well to them. The strange familiarity of having Jonathan out there doing the biz - instead of having him play for us on Cumbrae - had an effect on the novelty of the venue, and this was reinforced by the familiar ambiance of the somewhat spartan environment o the Artists' Bar at the end of the show.

So yes - it was a great evening, but the next audience will be, I think, every bit as important. Mind - it'd be a blast if 5,000 tried to squeeze into our wee church!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Banking blues

My post-Christmas sloth has been disrupted by an outbreak of bank rage. An oversight on my part has left me with an unpaid credit card bill - and a whopping £59 in additional charges which all seem to be variations on the theme of "Late Fee" and which strike me as ludicrously draconian in the age of electronic banking. I have not yet been able satisfactorily to ascertain why the Bank of Scotland waited over two weeks to write the letter which informed me that they had returned a debit unpaid; if I had received the letter when they didn't pay it I could have dealt with the matter in plenty of time and all would have been fine. And it seems mighty strange that when all the parties concerned are in the BoS network they behave as if they didn't know what was going on - and stranger still that, despite my having made the necessary payment, my card account is still coming up as being in arrears. Why does electronic banking seem to take as long to work as it would if I sent a cheque by second class post?

A visit to my local bank bears no relation to the experience of computerised voices, button pressing and call-centre indifference - but still the letters come and the rage rises. And all because I set up a direct debit to make sure I never forgot to pay my bills. Ironic, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
What a terrific atmosphere we had in church this Christmas morning! I personally love the Midnight Mass, the darkness, the candles, the incense - but this morning, with the sunlight outside dimming the candle-flames, was the most perfect Christmas morning service I've attended in years. Why? Because we had half our family, including our baby granddaughter, with us. The effect on the otherwise elderly congregation was wonderful - not least because Catriona was at her most captivating and barely made a cheep throughout the entire proceedings.

I suspect there was a fair amount of substitution going on as we sang of babes in the manger, tender infants and so on - it was hard not to think we were singing of the baby in our midst. But maybe we were right. There was a real sense in which the miracle of the Incarnation was underlined by this smiling child who gazed at us as we sang, gurgled happily at the candles, and snored quietly during the sermon - and by the palpable happiness in the church and the warmth of the smiles of friend and stranger.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Some gig!

Second half
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
We've been off gadding, Mr B and I - to London, just before Christmas. Normally we wouldn't choose precisely this time for such a trip, but on Saturday evening an arrangement by Mr B of The Christ Child's Lullaby was being given an airing at one of the huge "come and join in" carol events sponsored by Raymond Gubbay and we felt it was too much to miss. A carol which was first sung in Dunoon by the late lamented Hesperians, re-emerged in Cumbrae at a carol service years later and caught the ear of Jonathan Cohen now appeared in an enlarged and revamped version sung by a large, miked-up group of theatre singers - in front of an audience of some 5, 000 in a packed Albert Hall.

What an evening! The atmosphere was terrific, the performances polished and glitzy. We joined in the singing and the Mexican waves - though it has to be said the latter grew somewhat tedious - and I was fascinated by the odd acoustics of the hall which made it feel as if I was the only person singing. Apparently this affects the performers too - one end of the choir unable to hear the other - and I was very aware of the huge size of the auditorium. But the evening was simply the greatest fun, with great waves of bonhomie all round. And it was nothing like anything I've ever experienced live before.

The journey home yesterday was long - our train north as well as the Gourock train seemed to stop at every lamppost - and ended with the bumpy last Cal Mac ferry and the unglamorous trail up Ferry Brae, dragging our cases up the hill in the teeth of the rising wind. We knew we were well and truly home when the rain began shortly after we got in. After the atmospherically chilly fog of London, it came as quite a rude reminder.

And now I'm off to sing with a crowd of maybe 40, if we're lucky - but I wouldn't miss our own brand of Christmas for anything. Not even the Albert Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

In transit

This is more like it! After an absolutely perishing train between Gourock and Glasgow we find the toasty comfort of Virgin's 1st class much more our style. Cheers!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


How important it is to get it right for a funeral! And how difficult at this time of year - or is it? Especially if the person who has died was suffering, or had obviously felt that their time had come - for then a late Advent funeral can be full of a whole range of emotions. I was at a funeral today, and yes, it was well done. There was a great sense of peace in the church, and the utter tradition of the graveyard seemed fitting as the low sun slanted through the trees in the Bishop's Glen and a single bird called from behind the church. And because one of the organ pieces played before the service was the trigger for a poem I wrote last year, I repeat it here:


The days that followed your quiet end
were filled with bright, hard-shadowed light
and cold cut drily to the bones
and froze the tears as yet unwept.
The world seemed lit as if a stage
which you had left, your part discharged,
and music played like distant bells
heard on the road beneath the stars.
Was it to set the music free
you turned away from struggle then?
For if you chose the path you took
you left this lightness like a gift
with which we joined the search of those
who brought the myrrh, and bring it still.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Abigail revisited

I've just been seduced into watching, for the umpteenth time, the wonderfully awful Abigail's Party (Mike Leigh, 1977). Actually, I think I've only once seen it all the way through - because in many ways it's too painful to watch. I expect this is partly an age thing - these tight suits with the wide lapels and flared trousers, the big ties which appeared to throttle their owner were a feature of early married life chez Blethers, though I drew the line at the awful voluminous dress worn by Beverly (Alison Steadman, in pic). And these dire parties where the grapefruit stuck with cocktail sticks of pineapple, cheddar and cocktail onions - who ever thought that a reasonable combination? And everyone knocking back the booze and becoming sillier and sillier, and always someone in the loo throwing up - it was always such a relief to get home again, and yet we persisted.

Of course the toe-curling joy of this play lies in the dialogue, consisting almost entirely of vapid platitudes and attempts at small-talk. Beverly in particular addresses everyone as if they were a half-witted child, while her doomed husband tries desperately to maintain a veneer of sophistication. It's a play which makes me thankful for serious conversation and intelligent friends - and the joy of going home at the end of an evening sober.

Or, come to think of it, an evening spent blogging.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Week at the knees

It was my turn to read the lessons in church today. I love reading, especially these wonderful prophetic passages from Isaiah which you find in Advent. Now I have to confess that today I hadn't checked who was reading until I was on the point of leaving the house, so I had no time to prepare; just a cursory glance at the lectern to make sure the bible was open at the correct place. So here I was, enjoying the rolling sentences, when I came to this bit: Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

All very right and proper, you may say. We should indeed be girding our loins for the coming of Christ. But I was smitten by a terrible mirth. Mr B, you see, has been complaining for some time of what may turn out to be cartilage trouble - but which in Biblical terms could well be described as "feeble knees". I am proud to say that I didn't corpse; I don't think there was even a noticeable tremor in my voice. But I'm glad my pal Di wasn't there. She'd have laughed for sure. And that, I fear, would have finished me.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Robin ...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
There is nothing, I've decided, more likely to bring about the folding of time, the telescoping of the past 12 months into - oh, I dunno: a week or something - than decorating the Christmas tree. I suppose it's because I still use many of the decorations I've had since the first tree of our married lives: the star I made from tinsel and wire because I realised too late that we didn't have one and now can't bear to replace, the fragile glass baubles that you can't buy any more (you can see my favourite in the bottom right corner of the photo). That robin, even, though I consider him a relative newcomer, actually came to roost when Neil was a small boy, and his little wire feet are decidedly twisted now. I haven't bought any new tinsel in ages because I don't like the furry brashness of the stuff on sale, and I was sad to note that a golden glittery tassel - one of a set of four - which I bought in 1972 has begun to unravel.

There is, however, one ritual in particular which makes time vanish. Every year, before I start draping them on the tree, I plug in the lights to check they're still working. They are. And it's a bit of a miracle, really. For they, dear readers, are even older than the glycerine I mentioned the other day. I bought them in 1970, little Pifco bells. They don't glare, they don't flicker in a migraine-inducing ashion, and they're all different colours. And no, I don't leave them on when I'm not around.

Just in case!

Note: I don't really like doing the tree so early in the month, but the forest shop has a tendency to run out and leave you with the choice of a monster or a lopsided dwarf. And once it's here ...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arthur & George

I've just finished reading Julian Barnes' book Arthur & George. Normally when telling people how to write a decent critical essay I'd tell them to include the genre of the piece under discussion in this opening sentence, but I'm slightly foxed by this one. It's based on what happened when a young lawyer of mixed Parsee/Scottish parentage (the George of the title) was imprisoned for what seemed like a very unlikely crime and on his release had his case investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The writing is wonderfully polished, the observation acute, the insights fascinating. It has all the hallmarks of fiction - the direct speech, the glimpses into unspoken thoughts, even the omniscience on the part of the author that can annoy if one is looking for a constant perspective, or even a two-way split as suggested by the title. And yet it is not fiction, insofar as the story is concerned. I think this is why I felt somewhat stranded by the conclusion, even though the narrative in the closing pages is among the most gripping of the whole book.

However, most of the time I felt involved in a Holmesian mystery - and found that the parallel lives offered respite to a reader who tends to fall asleep in mid-page, in that the chapters, especially in the early stages, are brief and let us gradually come to know Arthur and George as they grow up. And even when we feel we know George in this fashion, there is always something not told - so the outcome is by no means predictable.

And the insights into the famous author's personal life are revelatory!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cats, mice and glycerine

I'm indebted to Mrs Tosh for drawing my attention to this wonderful video of a genetically modified mouse playing happily round the feet of a bemused mog. Apparently genetic engineers shut down sensors in the mouse's olafactory bulb (sounds very strange) so that it didn't shriek at the smell of cat. I hate to think what effect such modification would have at the Rectory.

Before coming across this wonderful bit of scientific dabbling, I was having a wee scientific reflection myself - about the nature of glycerine. Every year since 1973 I have made and iced my own Christmas cake, and every year I have used the same bottle of glycerine. I seem to recall having read somewhere that glycerine is chemically inert, which perhaps explains its long sojourn in my larder. As the bottle is only half done, I reckon it'll see me out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


An interesting little chain cropped up the past couple of weeks in the world of statins, the wonder drug for lowering cholesterol. Highland Health Board apparently instructed all the GPs in their area (which, dear reader, includes Dunoon these days) to change the prescription of all their patients currently on statins to one Simvastatin. Dutifully, GPs sent out letters enclosing a new prescription with the info that this from now on would be what they'd get. They dressed it up politely, of course, but it read pretty finally. And it was only if you were savvy enough and pushy enough to complain that you would be able to go on taking the drugs which suited you and to which you had become accustomed. (The letter didn't say this, of course, but it is so.) My pic is of one of the varieties which have fewer disagreeable effects.

Yesterday's Herald carried a piece about statins which contained the following statement:
A recent study of statins by US scientists linked one such drug, simvastatin, to sleep disruption that they claimed could lead to aggression and weight gain. One of the cheapest statins on the market, simvastatin is used by more than one million Britons and is available over the counter under the name Zocor Heart-Pro.
The mind boggles at the thought of the Highlands being over-run by aggressive, overweight insomniacs. I shall not be joining them.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Sunset reflections
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Looking back on yesterday's carol service, two very different reflections - one mine, the other from a total stranger. Mine first, though. And this was how strange it was to hear a poem of mine read by someone else - for yesterday was only the second time this has happened to me. Suddenly something intensely personal takes on its own life - grows up, if you like - and heads off into the world in the manner of your child going off to school holding someone else's hand. Furthermore, because another person reads with different phrasing, the words take on a different resonance, so that yesterday I heard something new, even though I knew it was coming. The first time this happened, some years ago, I didn't know that the person leading the meditation was going to use a piece of mine, and I found myself thinking "this is very familiar - I wonder who wrote it"...

The second feedback of the day came in a chance meeting in the street, when a woman whose husband had attended the service reported to Mr B that he had enjoyed the singing immensely - but that it was of course a younger choir than was usual in Dunoon, with young voices. And I thought of our group, reading glasses and all, average age pushing 60 - and smiled.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Candlelight and darkness. Music, words, silence. The Advent Carol Service at Holy Trinity was filled with a real sense of expectation - the advent expectation that is so distinct from the celebration of Christmas. Such was the matching of readings to readers, such the mystery of the music which is God's highway, that the listeners seemed to have stopped breathing. Even the dog lying at the feet of its owner - someone who hadn't even known the service was to happen, who had been spirited in, dog and all, at the end of an afternoon walk - made no sound. As Merton's words had it, intellects ...quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

And at the end, how joyful we all seemed, greeting one another at the back of the church over mulled wine and mince pies! We do things in style on our damp hill - and at moments such as these, our poverty matters not a bit. We are wealthy beyond reason.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mrs Blethers, I presume?

I can't resist blogging this historic meeting. Ewan and I have never managed to meet on Second Life until this evening, and here we are! Not that we had much to say - the background music from the pub inhibited using voice, and then he vanished to go and replace his battery - but I was amused to see how like his FL self he looks. Maybe it's an age thing - the avatars I meet who are of my generation in FL are infinitely more way-out looking. Why wear a T shirt and jeans when you can have wings, I say - though my avatar and I do have a pink streak in common.

We're standing in the rotunda where the Edublogs awards ceremony will shortly begin. I'll update later.

Update: No win this time - but a very odd experience to have so many people there that the sim was closed. The sound quality was intermittently excellent but broke up completely at times, and the time lag for actions and text was pronounced. And if I were to comment on the proceedings, I'd say they were unnecessarily bumbling - it was very hard to make out who had won what with all that low-key announcing and lack of reprise.

Can't see how SL can progress as a tool until it can accommodate more than a handful of people at a time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Shopping spree

Donald Dewar
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A visit to Glasgow is always interesting, whether because of the improbable amount of cash one can get through or the sights and sounds of my native city. Today it was a bit of both. We were leaving the car park (Cambridge Street - wildly expensive if you stay beyond 2 hours) when we overheard a woman talking into a mobile. "No, I'm not happy." "I'm not going to fall out with you. See you next week." The woman must've been my age, I'd say. Friend? Lover? Fascinating.

And then to Fazzi's for a quick expresso. Two pretty girls serving, three tables occupied with people wanting tea or coffee - nothing fancy. Fifteen minutes after we'd ordered I asked if the coffee was on its way; pg1 looked positively hurt. Good coffee, when it came, but sloooow. And there was no loo paper in the Ladies. Has Fazzi's changed hands or merely slipped sadly downhill?

And finally, brethren, there was a street evangelist, right at Donald Dewar's green feet. He was thundering, somewhat repetitively, against all those who were "shacked up together". God has it in for them, big style, apparently. Three girls passed, giggling at his fervour. For a suicidal moment I considered a bit of heckling, but Mr B was pressing on and sense prevailed. He was still at it, on a different pitch, after our long and bibulous lunch.

Actually that wasn't all. There were the beggars, like the kneeling woman. I've seen her on several occasions - she kneels stock still in the street with her hands cupped as if to receive communion. She's amazingly still. I don't know if people give her anything, just as I don't know what kind of life the children have whom I saw playing accordions in the street with a man who could have been their father. They were very accomplished, and the smaller must have been about 8 years old. And I contrasted their chilly labours with the hilarity we enjoyed buying baby books.

Shops overheated and full of shiny things, and cold and disappointment outside. A God of anger and punishment proclaimed in streets where buskers play jolly carols under the lights. People anxiously spending in the celebration of ... what? And over it all, Donald Dewar's statue calmly watching through his now restored specs. You don't get the same perspective, somehow, when you shop online...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Another poem

I've just posted a new poem over on frankenstina. It was written after midnight one night last week, when I was overcome with the complex syntax and scrupulous attention to detail in a passage from a book by Michael Ramsey. Usually I would enjoy reading such material, but at that time of night, and overcome with the demands of the season on both church musician and domestic goddess - you will recall that at times I am both - I couldn't cope.

Sometimes, in fact, I believe that God-talk demands poetry: language so filled with potential that the spaces between the words are full of angels. The sceptic would say this is a cop-out, but the sceptic presumably has never heard the angel-song.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Slanglican match

Goodness, these folks over at Anglicans Online have fairly come over all petted about the Anglican Cathedral on Second Life. Their patronising tone can be sussed by this statement:"We've no quarrel with groups of Anglicans choosing to mess about in SL", and they nail their Web 1.0 credentials firmly to the mast thus: "We've been messing about on the net since the late 1960s, when one of us helped build it". Maybe that's just it. Maybe they got stuck with it.

You can read the response of the SL community here. It's a pity such a widely-read site should be so curmudgeonly, but maybe it's to be expected. What, I wonder, do they fear?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Of poetry

I've been having an interesting exchange with BiL about a couple of the poems I've published recently. Of course I'm used to explaining why a poet does this or that - it was part of my job for long enough - but doing this about my own work throws up some new experiences. There was a time when I'd go off and try reworking a line because of a comment or question, but recently I've found that I'm quite sure that I've written what I want to and can explain it as confidently as if it were some well-known text. But how do I know? Well partly it's a result of study and reading a great deal of poetry with an eye for the poet's technique; partly it's an inner ear thing - the thing which has me scribbling out and redrafting as I work on a piece.

Another interesting aspect of the last few weeks has been the reappearance of the need to write after several totally arid months. One poem about my new grandchild - my total output over the whole summer - wasn't exactly white-hot creativity, and yet in the run-up to Advent I've found myself responding to a range of emotions in poetry, including one which I stuck on the back of a scrap of paper one night when I should have been tranquilly preparing for sleep. (This had me so energised that I lay awake till 3am - not a good idea) I have no idea if it'll last, this outburst, but it's great while it does. I've not even been to Second Life since Friday!

And a virtual Mars Bar for the first to spot the homage of the title of this post.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I rather like this picture, taken as the male voices of the ad hoc choir for Cumbrae's Advent Carols rehearsed and I wandered about listening to them and experimenting with my camera. It conveys some of the feelings I have about Advent - the darkness, the pools of light, the afternoon already dimming in the short December day. I was powerfully reminded of my first experiences of the Episcopal Church, here in this place in the late 1960s, as we sang "Let all mortal flesh keep silence", one of my favourite hymns and one which I had never heard before coming to Cumbrae. Music, darkness, light: all powerful stimuli to memory - and to something else, something at the very heart of Advent.

I shall be posting a new poem for Advent in two blogs: frankenstina and love blooms bright, where there are already two lovely Advent posts. Do visit!

Light in the darkness

Sanctuary candles
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The season of Advent begins tomorrow - though the date of this post shows Sunday has already begun. Despite the sudden outbreak of premature Christmas lights, trees and garlands everywhere from the cafe in East Enders to the seafront in Largs to the shore road in Dunoon, this is a special time of waiting in the dark of winter for the light of the Incarnation. This photo was taken today in the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae, a special place with its own vision of hope, where we were rehearsing for tomorrow's Advent Carol Service.

It is not only through music that I shall be marking the season, though goodness knows there will be plenty of that. Do visit the new blog, love blooms bright, where a group of bloggers will be contributing their own reflections on a daily basis from Monday. This is the brain-child of Kimberly, and it promises well.

And for those who are bamboozled by the colours of the candles in our Advent wreath, you can find an explanation here

Friday, November 30, 2007

Advent Wreath - Dunoon version

Creating Advent Wreath
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The other day, I came upon instructions for making an advent wreath, and thought it was time I offered an insight iinto the creation of the wild and wonderful wreath we have in Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon. So here you are:
1. Pick a dreich day at the end of the week before Advent. If it is raining, it will be a more authentic experience and the greenery will be wonderfully fresh.
2. Equip yourself with a couple of black bin liners and a pair of secateurs. A pal to help is a good idea, and the addition of a third party to hold a bag and keep cave if necessary is a luxury.
3. Head out into the woods. It is best if botanical experimentation in said woods has resulted in an abundant variety of species of evergreen.
4. Cut shapely fronds from as many different trees as you can reach, and stuff them into your bags.
5. In the church, rummage among assorted rusty metal stands till you find the Advent Candle stand which when last seen was doubling as a flower holder. Reassemble at the required height, brushing off the bits of fossilised foliage.
6. Pinch the required quantity of Oasis from the flower-arrangers' stock and jam below where the candles will go. It should be wet: Advent goes on a bit and you don't want it to dry out.
7. Insert the candles. Three purple, one pink, and a white one in the middle. Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who suggests that red is a suitable colour. It isn't.
8. Ram the ends of your tree cuttings into the Oasis, longest and frondiest (I just made that up) at the bottom. Continue to build it up all round, with some gesture in the direction of symmetry. Remember that the priest and servers will have a back view of it - don't neglect its rear.
9. Top it off with several clusters of the wonderful pink berries which look as if they're made of plastic and which the Good Lord in his wisdom caused to grow in the church grounds. On no account use red berries - they will clash hideously with your pink and purple candles (see 7 above)
10. Do not forget to sweep up the mess you have made on the floor, or that the tiles are now very slippy with the wet. It would be injudicious to Take A Fall at this juncture.

There. The Dunoon Advent Wreath. All buckshee but for the candles. Oh - and that hybrid stand.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Skypeing off into the sunset

This crazy photo - not improved by the fact that the photographer had a fit of giggles at the time - is here to illustrate once more the benefits of a bit of technology in the everyday life of a grandmama. Ewan is off on his travels again, taking his family with him, and this was my chance to see them - and especially my granddaughter - before they left today. We were using Skype, with Ewan's built-in webcam; Catriona is by now used to talking to a still photo of me, but I'd love to get my hands on someone's redundant iSight so that we can communicate more actively. (I don't want to upgrade my G$ just yet - it ain't broke, and it works well for me.)

And my point? Simply to reiterate that I'm tired of people consigning computers and so on to the realms of 'toys for the boys' - which I have been assured is what some of my friends do. This is no more a toy than is the telephone - and it's much more fun.

BTW - there's another new poem on frankenstina

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Na zdorovia!

"Take it with flash"
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Just seen the singers of Voskresenije off on the next leg of their current tour. The choir actually varies from year to year; only Jurij Maruk (Musical Director,far left) and Anatoly Artomonov (basso profundo, in the turquoise jacket) remain from the group who first came here in 2002. I find it hard to imagine what it must be like for some of these singers to leave their young children for two months - no wonder they're so keen to get internet contact, see photos and videos and chat.

They sang beautifully. The performance of the Eriskay Love Lilt (arr.McIntosh) was a delight - and their Gaelic flawless, according to a Gael who heard them. There is always someone in the audience who is hearing the group for the first time, and the enthusiasm of the people leaving last night was palpable, despite the horrors of the church drive in the darkness. The physicality of the experience of listening to the choir is something special; there were moments when I felt I had to
close my eyes and lose myself in the sound, both in the surging volume of their fortes and the purity of a pianissimo.

Talking with Jurij over a meal, we reflected on how musicians can be friends despite political difficulties, language barriers and cultural expectations. And when I joked with Pavel the second tenor about his resemblance to Robert de Niro, he pointed out that musicians tend not to earn de Niro's millions. No-one, however, seemed to doubt that it was worth it.

The choir don't have any contacts in Glasgow. It seems silly that they have to pass Glasgow on their tour without performing there. If anyone reading this fancies facilitating a concert, get in contact with me through this blog - or Flickr mail, via the photo.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Waiting for Voskresenije

If it's November, the Russians must be on their way. Actually, they are - our visiting choir from St Petersburg, Voskresenije, are even now on Bute, and will be with us this afternoon for a concert tonight. I have been thrown into a bit of a tizz by the news that there is a married couple among them - the hospitality arrangements have already been made and I foresee problems. And my spies in Oban tell me there might be another liason going on ... maybe they'll just have to do without tonight.

It's a funny thing - all sorts of people asking if I'm looking forward to the concert and all I can think of are cash floats and sandwiches. Actually, something I am very much looking forward to is hearing Mr B's new arrangement of the Eriskay Love Lilt, in which, apparently, the Russian singers make a great job of the Gaelic. This was transmitted to them by Mr B on a CD, after Gaelic consultations with our friend John in Oban. It brought the house down, we are told, on more than one occasion on this tour.

I wonder what the Russian is for "fingers crossed"?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

All change...

This Navajo woman has absolutely nothing to do with my subject today other than her faintly quizzical expression and the fact that she is wearing clothes which go some way to identifying her role - either in life as a whole, or at the moment the photo was taken. You wonder if she wears traditional clothing all the time, or merely when it is a suitable moment so to do. And this brings me to my point.

Are you the kind of person who dresses in the morning in the clothes you will wear till you go to bed? Or do you have activity-specific clothing which will come on and off through the day till your bed is so littered in the day's discarded garments that it takes half an hour to deal with them before sleep is possible?

I have to confess to being the latter type. I used to watch films in which the man of the house would return home from the office or similar place of employ, perhaps remove his jacket, and sit down to dinner/a drink/ whatever. I used to marvel at how uncomfortable this might be, and at the dangers of spilling his soup down his tie when he was not actually dining in a posh restaurant. My father came home from school, disappeared briefly, and returned looking like a genteel tramp in that his jersey frequently had holey elbows which he would refuse to let anyone patch. We were never allowed to sit around in our school uniforms - though I think on some stressful evenings of school orchestra and much homework this rule was relaxed.

Today I have had no need to be particularly respectable. If I had been in Glasgow for the day, or at church, there would have been a decent pair of trousers and a shirt - maybe even a skirt - lying around waiting to be put away. But I have been out twice, soaking the trousers I wore the first time and resorting to my waterproof ones the second. Now I am wearing the ultra-comfy but fairly unspeakable jeans whose forgiving waist will see me through dinner. My fleece has some splodges of dried dough on it - for today was one of intense domesticity - and my shirt has been a favourite for at least 20 years. On my feet I have a pair of bright green Holey Soles. Had today been a swimming day, I would have worn a different set of comfy clothes to haul off and stuff in my locker.

I have a friend who mocks my quick-change tendencies. She has no qualms about wearing new jeans for a muddy dog-walk, and has a waist which does not mind an unchanging waistband from dawn till dusk. She wears, washes, discards. My mother would have had a saying for her:
"Aye at the head of the heap."

See what parents do to you?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Tale of the Twittering Son

Once upon a time there was a relatively doting mother who did all the cool things like using the internet, sending mails, blogging, surfing, wasting precious hours of her dwindling tale of years wandering Second Life as an absurd avatar, sending text messages, photosharing - even using facebook and Twitter. She read her children's blogs to such an extent that she was able to converse with some semblance of knowing what was going on and she tried not to phone them when they might be tired/grumpy/watching footie/cooking/eating/changing the baby. She admired their photos and sympathised when they had domestic problems like floods or leaks.

And so it was, O Best Beloved (sorry, Kipling) that one day, while updating her own Twitter status with some mundane thought, she came upon the news that one of her children was having plumbing issues for the second time in two months. The problem had been in the public domain for all of two days before she had become aware of it. Immediately she was stricken with pangs of guilt - had she been remiss in not Twittering more assiduously? - and irritation. Why had she not been personally informed? Why had her words of wisdom - for she was, after all, a Wise Woman - not been sought instantly?

But being such a Wise Woman she decided that this is the way the world goes. She who does not Twitter constantly is a failure as a mother and deserves to be ignored. And maybe, she ruminated, it was better to have electronic contact with her offspring than have them constantly at her door. After all, she might have ended up waiting in for the plumber.

BTW - there's a second new American experience poem on frankenstina

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The dying business

I read this extract from Le Milieu Divin by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin last night. I thought it was an extraordinary take on the business of dying - or the contemplation of it anyway - and reproduce the extract in its entirety.
It was a joy to me, O God, in the midst of the struggle, to feel that in developing myself I was increasing the hold that you have upon me; it was a joy to me, too, under the inward thrust of life or amid the favourable play of events, to abandon myself to your providence. Now that I have found the joy of utilising all forms of growth to make you, or to let you, grow in me, grant that I may willingly consent to this last phase of communion in the course of which I shall possess you by diminishing in you.

After having perceived you as he who is ‘a greater myself’, grant, when my hour comes, that I may recognise you under the species of each alien or hostile force that seems bent upon destroying or uprooting me. When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.

The more deeply and incurably the evil in encrusted in my flesh, the more it will be you that I am harbouring – you as a loving, active principle of purification and detachment. Vouchsafe, therefore, something more precious still than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I shall die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


At this time of year, with the afternoon turning dark at 3.45pm (it's turned into a very grey day indeed after a cold, bright morning), I find myself once again contemplating what it is that makes Advent so powerful in this northern outpost of civilisation. I never thought about it when I lived in the city, but looking out at the large sky and the grey sea focuses the mind somewhat.

And it is perhaps this focus that has found me writing four poems in as many weeks, after months of feeling I didn't have poem in my head. Two of them were stirred up from the sediment of memories by my finding notes made in my diary while I was in the States, at moments which especially struck me - sunset in the somehow disturbing surroundings of Fairhope in winter, the wonderful language of the conductor on the Amtrak to New York, which I copied verbatim each time he spoke. Reading them when I should have been checking dates for a Lay Worship Team meeting made me long to be alone, to do something with them, to set down the lines which even then were forming in my head and which I feared I would lose.

The fourth poem was inspired by a photograph in the guardian's excellent Guide to Photography the other weekend. A small monochrome picture of an old woman in a cafe had me instantly reaching for the pencil and the used envelope which are my preferred tools at such a moment. I suppose it was in the same mould as Edwin Morgan's Instamatic Poems. Anyway, I shall not be posting them here, but over on frankenstina, beginning today with "Mobile Bay". Do leave me a comment if you visit.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Luddites in the glens

Will there come the day when everyone will regard the use of computers/internet/social software as normal? I deliberately arranged the above in order of provocation, for I find myself wandering in a world of dinosaurs. The other week we even experienced problems meeting someone off the ferry because, although he possesses a mobile phone, he rarely switches it on - out of irritation, it seemed, at mobile phone users.

I am about to embark yet again on part of my crusade to save money by using online technology instead of paper. We've actually managed to discard the paper, but I still have to explain about PDF files and not rushing to print everything rather than read it onscreen. But why is it that I always seem to end up feeling as if I'm somehow out of order because I use what most of my online friends would regard as fairly basic technology? I know I'll be treated as if I'm the misfit - or as if being in possession of a laptop and using a wireless connection qualifies me as devil's spawn.

Maybe it's something to do with my age. Maybe the fact that I exist upsets people of my generation who would rather remain in the 20th century. I get the same vibes as I did when I confessed (note the use of the word) to watching Star Trek. Ladies of a certain age should know their place and wear a twinset. Or maybe, in this neck of the woods, a tweed skirt. But I don't, and I won't, and I'm no longer prepared to make concessions to luddites. If anyone reading this has any tips to share to make the luddites somehow eager to learn/try/get broadband in their remote glens I'd be glad to hear from them. Otherwise, just spare me a kindly thought on Wednesday.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A gauntlet ...

I've just been testing my vocabulary (not, I must admit, for the first time) on this site, to which I was directed by Mr W earlier in the week. Childishly, I'm currently engaged in a competition with myself to see how soon I can reach the top possible score of 50. This is not really the point, in a way, as the site donates 10 grains of rice to the UN food program for every work you get correct, so if you keep making mistakes and go on playing, more rice is donated. However, as I still haven't reached the minimum possible time (ie make no mistakes at all) I shall play my part by persevering. The game ups the ante by increasing the difficulty each time you're correct.

I was reasonably pleased with my score today - reaching 50 after 490 grains of rice - and gratified to note how a knowledge of Latin and of Shakespearean English seems to help. I'm sure my erudite and competitively driven readers will soon be telling me how much better they've done - especially if they also know some Greek ...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A visit to Grandmama's

I'll just eat a finger
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I'm in the middle of remembering one of the potent reasons for having children when you're young. My gorgeous granddaughter decided to pay us a visit this week, and brought her mum along to carry her gear, provide the grub and so on. What a commanding presence a tiny child can be! It's not that she wails a lot - though having recently discovered how to scream she does go in for some vocal exercises which will have her in the first sopranos before long - but she has an entire repertoire of beguiling little noises and smiles of recognition and/or amusement which make it almost impossible to ignore her.

However, that's her away to bed after an exciting day in which she had a walk beside the sea and another one up the Bishop's Glen, coming down in the dusk. As do all our guests on their first visit, she found the fresh air totally soporific and slept from the moment she left the house. This meant that she was also able to stay up and watch East Enders, which apparently she's not allowed to do at home. Grandmas can be such a bad influence ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The midnight hour

This clock - a long-case clock - has for the past two weeks lain in my front room in several pieces, in order to have the hall decorated without covering the clock in cream paint. Now the decorators have gone and the new stair carpet has been laid and some of the dust and chaos have been dealt with. There is still much to be done - it's amazing how much stuff lives in our hall - but this evening, at 11pm, we decided to put the clock back, so to speak.

And in a clock as old as ours, this means rebuilding the thing. Finding the level floorboards, easing the case into position with the wooden batten at the back resting on the wall, pushing the wee bits of wood under the feet to level it - that bit was easy. The scary bit was putting the action back, with me holding the wooden surround (behind the face) while Mr B (not the son of a clockmaker for nothing) re-attached the weights, which he could only hold for about 10 seconds in one hand, and wound the supporting cables round the grooved brass drums which make everything work (I think). Then we had to poke the stem of the pendulum up behind the dangling weights and attach it, set it going, listen to the tick - and move the hands through all the hours till it struck midnight, because the whole process had taken us an hour.

Now the clock seems to be working and I'm a nervous wreck. Something to be said for a wee digital number, perhaps?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Listening in Argyll

Yesterday I was too tired to blog; today I find myself every bit as pleased with the day as I was while driving home through the dark and wet from Oban. I had been attending a day in which the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles attempted to get to grips with the problems still facing gay Christians in our churches - and for some people this was obviously a new area, one they hadn't really ventured into before. One woman bravely admitted to the whole group that what she was learning was so different from her entire upbringing, society, culture - and that she still had much to learn. A priest sitting near me repeated several times how ignorant he felt, and I think we all realised the gaps in understanding when we listened to +Brian (Edinburgh diocese) talking about his visit to Nigeria.

Knowing some of what the Christian church in Nigeria has to contend with was an eye-opener, giving some understanding of what many of us see as outrageous behaviour. However, I came away from this session more than ever convinced that the time has come for us to abandon the Anglican Communion if it is to provide the shackles that bind us to such very different societal norms. I cannot see that any loose federation of churches - and for most of us, I bet, it is loose - is more important than justice. Similarly, when someone in the group whose discussion I was facilitating opined that the church surely had more important things to consider, like global poverty and climate change, I was struck by what seemed like an obvious point: How can we be an effective voice in the world if we cannot look after our own? Why would anyone listen to us?

But an overriding impression stayed with me. This felt like the Body of Christ in action. The facilitators (one of whom was my pal Alison) ran things so smoothly that we were able to concentrate on the issues and on the pain of some present with us. People had travelled huge distances to be there - though it was a pity that some who live much closer to Oban didn't show. Now I'd like to see the experience being repeated in every charge in the diocese. I'd like to go considerably further - but that's for another post. Let's just say that the church on show yesterday was the one I want to belong to.

There's a poem for Remembrance Day over on Frankenstina

Friday, November 09, 2007

Growing in Second Life

A few more thoughts on Second Life, prompted by a conversation with Ewan, whom I have never yet managed to meet in SL and who - perhaps as a consequence - has vanished from my list of contacts. I have, however, met some interesting people and attended a church service - though it has to be said that the service times at the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life are very inconvenient for someone sleeping and eating in GMT time zone. Perhaps as a result of my taking my laptop to the kitchen, I didn't really get the full benefit of the service, with several breaks in transmission and a frozen screen. However, I was able to experience the actuality of the event (before I had to cook) and was interested at the feeling of being part of a congregation (we all sat in the pews, just like Holy T on a quiet morning and the sermon was well worth listening to). Quite apart from services, I actually find the location for them a good place to be - the visuals are pleasing, the sounds soothing and I meet people who are friendly and helpful - just as I would hope to if I were in any Christian community.

Apart from that, I've visited Edunation several times and spoken with someone from the US (using voice - great hilarity over my accent) and Glasgow ( typing - but a real kindred spirit). I've seen some thoughtful exhibition work, and used the links provided to check out background info. It seems to me that Ewan was right when he suggested that a real drawback was the need to be there at the same time as the people you want to see - unlike the Facebook or blogging experience - but in a way I enjoy the randomness of the meetings and the opportunity afforded simply to start chatting to a stranger and find them interesting. However, large tracts of SL are empty when I go there, so that I wander alone through lovely landscapes or empty lecture rooms. If there is to be any real contact and use of the medium, it's necessary to use Group Notices. These turn up in your email as well as in little blue screens in SL, and tend to set SL times for meetings so that you can work out if you can attend.

That said, so far it's the church use of SL which impresses me most. It's much easier to drop in on a service in a virtual environment and sample what's going on than it is physically to get yourself to a church and then feel you want to walk out again - and evangelising is easier too, in a strange way. The problem will always be how to make the first contact - but in the meantime I'd settle for meeting a few more of my friends and rellies!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Superlative sourdough

I made another batch of sourdough bread the other day, and found that the memory lapse which led me to abandon the loaves at the final rising stage was entirely beneficial. Last time I made this recipe - Kimberly's - I followed it religiously (well, you would, wouldn't you?), allowing the full twelve hours for the sponge to develop, and letting the dough rise in the bowl for a generous time after hand-kneading it. This time, I bunged the sponge and the flour and so on into the breadmaker on "dough" program, thereby avoiding the sticky-fingers-when-the-phone-rings syndrome, and let it all fit in with what I was doing rather than the other way about. And then I left the formed loaves to rise all night - 12 hours - before I baked them.

The result was wonderful. Huge airholes in the chewy inside of the loaf made for a much less dense bread and fabby toast on the second day. I shall be practising benign neglect from now on.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Examining the past

I've just been watching this extraordinarily gripping film, Taking Sides, which recreates the interrogation of Dr Wilhem Furtwangler during the post-war de-Nazification of Germany. Furtwangler is considered by some to have been the most outstanding conductor of the 20th century, but his role in continuing to provide music for the Nazi regime meant that he was a target for thorough questioning by the occupying Allies.

In the movie, Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard) is interrogated by a tough-talking American major (Harvey Keitel), and it is this interrogation which takes up most of the film. The confrontation brings the role of the artist in an evil regime into the limelight, along with all the other moral ambiguities and issues emerging from World War 2. I was fascinated by my own reaction to all this: here was a musician who apparently shook hands with Hitler, directed concerts for him, seemed to be at ease with the regime - and yet, along with the sensitive Jewish American soldier assisting Keitel, I felt outraged at the bullying of the quietly-spoken Furtwangler by this brash soldier. Against the soundtrack of Beethoven and the images of concentration camp atrocities, I found myself wondering what any of us would have done in the circumstances. And in a telling newsreel clip, saved for the closing title sequence, we could see the actual handshake of which Keitel made so much in the interrogation. After bending from the podium to shake the Fuhrer's hand, Furtwangler - the real Furtwangler - clearly transferred a tightly-balled handkerchief from his left hand to his right, as if to wipe it clean.

Not a comfortable film, and not entertainment in the usual sense - but I feel I need to watch it again.

Monday, November 05, 2007

New wheels

The new wheels
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The more devoted among my readers may recall that way back before the summer (I know. What summer?) I enthused here about our ordering a new car. Turns out it was so new that Renault had to make it for us; they sent us chatty letters telling us of its progress and at last it's come. (This reminds me, always, of my copy of The Sleeping Beauty, in which the first words of the awakened Beauty were "Ah, my Prince, at last you've come!")

As I remarked before, buying a car in Inveraray is not like going to your average city dealer. We drove our old car into the workshop at Semple's, the owner drove the new one into position outside and left the engine running "to warm it up for you" (the temperature had by this time dropped to 5ÂșC and there was a snell wind), and we popped into the office to deal with the paperwork and the small matter of payment (Haven't done that yet: he knows where we live...) The boss then came with us for a wee spin down the road beside the loch - just to make sure that everything was all right/we knew what we were doing with the automatic handbrake - and then it was ours.

The ride is great - firmer and more butch-feeling than other models we've driven - and the engine does that exciting dig in your back when you accelerate (rapidly) to 50mph. The steering-wheel seems pleasantly low, rather like driving a van - I don't feel I'm peering over it - and the high seat position means you can see so much more. As well as being called a Renault Megane, it is also named "Conquest", and it conquered our Somme-like back lane with ease and no scrapes. It has that lovely new smell and a flat-loading boot.

And the seatbelts are orange.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Oh dear. I feel a weensie grump coming on - a sort of Victoria Meldrew moment. As I drove home today, bemoaning the darkness at 6pm, knowing that while I'd walked soaking in the mist the sun had been splitting the sky just down the river at Ayr, I passed the shop which sells real Christmas trees in the season. And as an early rocket lit up the sky I noticed them. Christmas trees, real ones, cut and ready for sale. It's not even the 5th of November yet and they're selling trees. And I bet someone will buy them, and presumably put them up and they'll be shedding their needles all over someone's centrally-heated carpet before the month is out.

Some people moan about their trees: about the mess, and about how they're glad to see the back of them - around New Year, or even earlier. If they've bought them in November then I'm hardly surprised. But I feel there's an enormous dilution of the significance of any festival when it's spread out and anticipated in this manner. Just as I recall the excitement of waiting for the first rocket to be let off after dark on the evening of November 5th and the flicker of the first flames on the huge bonfire we'd all watched growing over the past weeks, I associate the smell of the newly-erected tree with the week just before Christmas, when the anticipation grew with the carefully-timed rituals. Now they all seem to merge messily - pumpkins and peanuts and Christmas trees and fireworks. We'll be having the hot cross buns soon.

Meanwhile I'll be watching for the first fairy lights out there ...

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Yesterday we celebrated All Souls in Holy Trinity. A handful of worshippers - it was in the morning - but a host of remembered souls. It was an electrifying service. Everything came together in - yes - a wonderful exchange: prayers, music, our own singing. It was as if the memory of our loved, absent ones spurred us on to sing with the care and sensitivity of a trained choir. (Some of us are indeed trained choristers but it doesn't always sound like that.) And at times such as this we know we are not alone, not forgotten, but a part already of the hosts of Heaven.

And yesterday was too close to the moment to write about it.

Friday, November 02, 2007


First papering of hall
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
We live in an oldish house. We know this every time there's a leak in the roof, or a chimney head has to be removed because the stone has grown porous. We know this because we've thrown money at the building for the past 30-odd years. We know this because there's a sone-carved date over the centre of the block: 1897. And now we've seen the writing on the wall - literally. The photo shows the earliest decorators' record of their work. "Papered by D. Fraser, G. Morton 1898".

Our hall is large in that it takes 27 rolls of wallpaper to cover it. We are having it decorated for the first time since Charles married Diana - I can remember the painter singing along with the hymns on the telly. That wallpaper, which we've just removed, had become dark and stained and altogether depressing. The paper which preceded it was even worse - grey with a vertical pattern in black and maroon. And I suspect the layer under it may be the one put up by one R. Borland on 27 July 1956 - as I recall, it had a distinctly 50s look to it. But I can't imagine what the first paper was like. I know the woodwork was varnished dark brown - you can still see traces round the door-frames - but was it as dark and lugubrious as I suspect?

I'd love to have a window in time - to go back and see if anyone slept in the bed which appears to have been housed in our bedroom cupboard, to see what it was like when there were only two houses in the block for the ten years or so before they were subdivided into four, to see who lived here then with the range in the back room and some kind of scullery out the back. And the loo was, I think, at the end of the garden. These long-dead decorators have stirred the ghosts for me, and made me feel like a sojourner in my own house.

And I'm having the hall painted cream - though right now it has a yellowish look ....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Randomly, on All Saints'.

One of the questions in a recent survey to discover the degree of one's addiction to blogging was this: do you look at life in terms of bloggability? (Actually I made that last word up - the original question, lacking it, was much more long-winded). And I had to admit to the second top indicator in that area. But sometimes the blog comes as an afterthought, a sort of coda to a series of events, as it were, and that's today. The astute reader may have noted a lack of blog fervour on my part over the last week; this was due to a horrific bout of what has now been identified as Campylobacter infection - big on Google if you really want the details. But what bothered me a bit was the length of time it took to identify the cause - from my submitting the required specimen on the Wednesday morning to the phone call from the surgery on the following Tuesday. Mercifully, I've had this before and knew that starvation and rehydration lessened the impact - but it did affect the treatment and it'd have been good to have known for sure by the end of the week. I'm better now, and the 4 lbs I lost in as many days have, sadly, re-established themselves.

And yesterday served as a sad reminder of what we do to ourselves. A fatal pile-up on the M8, closing the road for 7 hours, a diversion via Grangemouth, the sudden malfunction of our own car's engine somewhere near Moodiesburn (horror) and the effect of her first injections on a smiley, tranquil baby all made me want to hide in a corner rather than blog, actually. And we have the decorators in the hall and all life is covered in dust.

And if you want to find out more about what drives a blogger, have a look here - a link for which I am indebted to Neil, whose revamped blog is happily enticing him to post on it more frequently. And with that little bit of nepotism, I shall leave it for today.

Monday, October 29, 2007

8+1 = music!

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This extremely cheerful bunch of people is the singing group 8+1 - so called because eight women sing under the direction of on man, aka Mr B. Yesterday we felt we'd arrived, after three public appearances either physically far away (ie in Kames) or far from our comfort zone (remember last year's fiasco in the Queens' Hall?) This concert, however, took place in the lovely acoustic of Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon - and even with over 60 people in the audience we we sounded good. (People who sing will know the potentially devastating effect of bodies on a resonant acoustic)

What made it such an excellent gig? Somehow, I guess, it all came together - all the weeks and months of work on projection, face shapes, hanging the face on the ears (you either do this or you don't), posture, mouth shape, the position of the tongue behind the teeth .... and that's before making sure of every note, every consonant, the swingy off-beat bits, the ....

Stop, stop, I hear you cry. Enough already. And indeed, the goal is always to make it look and sound easy, so that people don't think about the hard work beforehand. Yesterday I think we succeeded. The church fell silent to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, swung along to Fly me to the Moon, and rejoiced with Good News. Our two organists did us proud, and the applause was sustained and enthusiastic. And I don't think that was simply a result of the wine at the interval.

I think we done exceptional!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

SL revelling

Wey hey! I've just been to a party - danced like a lunatic for much longer than I normally have the legs for, looked a million dollars, met some charming people and a white tiger (it danced too) and listened to some cool music. I talked without raising my voice, managed a few minutes of private conversation, looked around me a bit, and sent a quick message to someone whom I wanted to invite but who had too much work to do and was needing the extra hour of the elongated night to get it done.

All too good to be true? Of course it is. But I'm in that photo, and I was invited by the guy on the left of the pic, all in Second Life. And I'm exhilarated because that's the most people I've met at one time in all my wanderings through SL, and after I got used to the oddity of it all it actually began to feel like a party, so that when I said it was past my bedtime and I had to go, I felt sad to leave. (It was only early evening in SL, but they're very understanding)

Anyone wanting to certify me: could you wait till after tomorrow, please? I'm singing in a concert. *(Plug)

*8+1 in concert, Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon, 3pm.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Re-engaging the brain

Feeling slightly recovered from the malaise of the past four days, I felt up to opening my new book. ( I must just add, however, that it is dispiriting to note that the 4lbs shed during the aforementioned four days seem to have come off such unhelpful parts of the anatomy as the fingers and the face. Perhaps this is why I needed to engage my brain again).

But a nos moutons. Spong's prologue and opening chapter have left me asking the same question as he does:
"Is faith so weak and life so afraid that those who dare to pose questions must expect to be attacked for faithlessness by the religiously insecure?"
Immediately before that question, he asks his readers if they have felt the tension between their inability to believe literally the supernatural things said about Jesus in the Bible and reiterated in Christian history and their being drawn "deeply and expectantly" into the Jesus experience. As one of these readers, I know that there are areas of my religious thought that I simply don't share - unless, perhaps, with an interested non-believer. Safer that way, don't you know.

There is little chance that someone like me will receive death-threats over this - unlike Spong. And my job doesn't depend on my toeing the party line. But surely all these highly-educated clergy of my acquaintance must know all this stuff? So what happens? Does every priest have to stick to the curriculum regardless of what they know? Is there a rule about this? (These aren't rhetorical questions: feel free to enlighten me)

I wasn't really brought up to believe much. I was taught the basics and allowed to go my own way, and it was experience of something which happened in an Anglican framework which caught me, so perhaps it was always going to be easy for me to question and to feel it was ok to use the brains I'd been given rather than give them a Sabbath rest. And yes, I'm a Christian, one who doesn't want to live in a mediaeval cosmology. Just let me keep the music ....

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Left holding the baby

One of the good things I did over my long weekend away was to attend a lecture in Edinburgh by Jack Spong, radical American bishop and theologian. I was delighted to realise as I passed the Unitarian church where it was delivered that the event was a sell-out long before it started - not just because I was able to sell my spare ticket (at the purchase price) but because this seemed a hopeful sign. For much of the time I feel that religion in our society is so much a minority sport (I'm talking ethnic Brits here) that I wouldn't have been surprised at a half-empty hall, but no, it was packed. The audience was interesting - I felt young by comparison with 90% of those attending - and resembled a cull of many piskie congregations, which was probably just about right.

Spong was speaking about the subject of his latest book, Jesus for the non-religious. To attempt to summarise the 90 or so minutes of his talk would be to diminish it, and I don't intend to try. But it was heartening to hear someone of his undoubted scholarship reinforce ideas which I feel I've instinctively held for years, and to realise that this was another of these inspiring Christians who could blow new life into the flame of faith and show how possible it all is. I'll share one of my insights which he touched on.

When setting Interpretation passages for senior pupils, we often used to put a question about the nature of the text used. Was it fact or fiction, and how could you tell? And one of the possible pointers to fiction would lie in the close reproduction of the most private or intimate moments of conversation. Like the one between Pilate and Jesus, for example. Now, go too far down that road and you could end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But explain the Jewish background and a bit of history and suddenly - hey! You grab the baby and embrace it. The superfluous bits are seen for what they were. It's what is that counts.

Ok. I told you it was simple. I bought the book (link on the Wikipedia site already linked to) and will be on surer ground when I've read it. But at the end, when he stood like an old-fashioned Baptist preacher and demanded of the church: "Give me back my Jesus!" the hall erupted. It was exciting and exhilarating, and all these aged persons were full of it. No doubt there were those who had come to mutter, but they must've slunk off.

And me? I had a bad attack of the whirring brain and wasn't asleep till after 3am. Isn't religion exciting?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Devilish good read

Having been deblogged by a weekend in a monastery (again) and a dreaded lurgie, I feel I have so much to catch up on that I'll start with the present and then look back. Feeling too poorly to sit at my desk, I've been reading the way I used to before computers took over my life - James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack. What a good book! I'd read the same author's The Fanatic, set in the dire Scotland of the post-Reformation period, but this story is of now, very much of now, when the church is no longer a force in the lives of the majority but can consume the souls of its adherents. When the minister of the local Kirk - Gideon Mack, himself a son of the Manse - is rescued from drowning and claims it was the Devil who saved him, he is cast out by the Presbytery as vigorously as he would have been four hundred years ago. Then, of course, he would also have been burned at the stake. But his devil is seductively ordinary, cantankerous but compelling, and God is nowhere to be found.

The story is presented as Mack's own, some written as a conventional biography, some - the crux of the narrative - as if dictated and transcribed. The whole is set up and concluded by an imaginary publisher, filling in the gaps and commenting on the strangeness of it all. I found it absorbing and convincing, and beautifully written. Gideon Mack is a 21st century Scot, with a job to do and no faith to bring to it, who runs marathons for charity and has an affair with his best friend's wife, an independent spirit or a weak one depending on your point of view. You may never again look at a minister without wondering.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stuck in the mud

This is the record of a late afternoon walk we should never have taken. This is what happens when you find a new forestry road where no road should have been; this is what happens when you rashly decide to find out where it goes. This is what happens when the road ... stops, as forestry roads tend to, in a heap of mud and felled trees, and you have to retrace your steps as the sun sets behind the hills and you worry that you may have to blog from a ditch your last, immortal words.

Enough of this over-dramatic piffle. But there is a new forestry road above the Bishop's Glen; it wasn't there a month or so ago and bits of it are only just there now. It dips in and out of great holes to accommodate - we imagine - pipes which will take the many streams under the road, and its surface is rutted and soft. At one point, two of us got stuck and had to be heaved out of mud over the tops of our feet, and great was the torrent of expletives thereof. This picture was taken shortly after that, before we had found our way off the road and back to civilisation.

Now my boots are drying and my trousers in the wash. Second Life seems safer, somehow - I really wanted to teleport this afternoon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Thinking about language

I'm currently putting together material for a workshop on Poetry and Prayer. I've had my wrist cyber-slapped for insisting on the close relationship between the two; I'm passionate in my belief that banal and over-specific language has no place in our liturgies and refuse to accept that the language of the supermarket is suitable for every situation.

At the moment I'm wondering just how much non-specialists (and I don't necessarily mean liturgists) are aware of language as a tool. Are they like me with this laptop - able to use it fairly effectively to do what they want it to, without any glaring errors, but unable to tell you how or why it works, even if they wanted to? For I'm aware that my "class" will be an amazingly bright and thoughtful one, in no need of background info on the subject matter of the poetry - but what about the workings of language? imagery? rhythm? Do people who have not spent their lives teaching others how to communicate effectively, or how to analyse the writings of others, think about the effect of a word, or a line break, or the connotations of an expression? I don't know.

So, dear readers, you have two days in which to enlighten me - and to ensure that my workshop isn't going to teach my grandmother to do something she can do standing on her head!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Many, many years ago, when all the world was young, I was inspired to make my own bread using the recipe given me by a good friend who at that time was the wife of the Rector of Holy Trinity, Dunoon and lived in the Rectory. On a regular basis I would make a batch of four loaves and freeze three of them. When I returned to teaching, such domestic goddess stuff was an early casualty, and it is only in the last few years that I have returned to breadmaking. Now, however, my breadmaking friend is the wife of the Bishop of Argyll, and I use a breadmaking machine.

But today I was inspired by the current occupant of The Rectory to try making sourdough bread. Using Kimberly's recipe, and Kimberly's starter, I produced these two beauties. I've nibbled a wee bit and it's delicious, though at this hour of the night I don't care to eat more. I'd forgotten how long hand-made bread can take - and going for a trip on the Waverley didn't help to hurry the process; next time I'll plan the start-time more sensibly. But I shall heat it up tomorrow and enjoy it to the full.

Another thing I'd forgotten: the phone always rings just when you've begun the kneading for the first time. Always. I think that bit might be done in the machine ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Virtual Christians

As I write this, I’m listening to a sermon. On a Friday, and on my laptop. It’s about the church and the possibilities of using new technologies for mission, and it’s to be found here, along with other posts on the subject of the speaker’s virtual ministry. I met him last night, in his virtual Anglican cathedral in Second Life, and reflected later that even if I were to go no further, I’d have noticed the difference in attitude between him/his avatar and some I’ve met already. It’s heartening to note that educators and Christians share a concern for encouragement and a willingness to approach and help the stranger in a virtual world – because if I notice this, then others will as well. And that, if I’m not mistaken, is ministry.

With any luck, I’ll attend a virtual church service on Sunday – though the time differences make for odd service times in the UK!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Darling? I don't think so

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer - now, of course, Our Great Leader - more to vent my spleen about Inheritance Tax than in any hope of a sensible response. This is a part of that letter:

Dear Mr Brown

Yesterday my sister and I paid a total of just over £££££ [an amount which seemed a very large sum of money to me] inheritance tax/Capital Gains Tax/whatever on our late mother’s estate. In pointing out to you the circumstances under which this estate was accumulated, I am looking for someone – yourself, a minion – to convince me that this is reasonable. As a member of the Labour Party for some 15 years, I am not averse to an equitable distribution of wealth, but have never considered my family to come into the ‘wealthy’ category.

My parents were both teachers in the State System – not much chance to avoid paying taxes there. My father died four years after retirement at the age of 65. My mother, deprived of the companion with whom she might have taken expensive holidays, lived modestly in the family house that they had bought in 1955 in the West End of Glasgow. She had some investments, which she guarded against the possibility of extreme old age and ill health.

In the event, she lived in that house until she was 92, when a stroke meant she had to move into a nursing home. She died a year later. When we sold the house, it made what to us appeared an impressive price – the basis of the estate on which we are now taxed.

How would you have avoided that tax? How should we ensure that our children do not suffer the same burden? And how, finally, will we feel if the law is changed in the near future to raise the threshold for paying inheritance tax?
Rhetorical questions for a busy chancellor? But this retired teacher suddenly finds herself in sympathy with a group of people with whom I have never before identified. Convince me, please.

Yours sincerely
He - or rather some minion - did reply, to the effect that, you know, the country couldn't manage without this tax money, and come on, old thing, you're obviously rolling in it. Actually I made that last bit up, but the firm tone of the letter left me in no doubt that without Inheritance Tax the Treasury would grind to a halt.

Do I feel pleased at my clairvoyance? Huh. Will I vote for Flash Gordon's lot again? Your guess.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Toe right

After all this hi-faluting stuff about anti-matter and virtual reality, a more down-to-earth, not to say earthy, nugget of information. A year ago, I was assaulted in a monastery by a synthetic-filled duvet with a sheet tucked in underneath it. The result was a hideously swollen toe and nasty developments in the nail. My immensely sapient GP told me that I'd either been wearing football boots that had been too small for me or sleeping under heavy bedclothes, and reaching a conclusion was less difficult than one might imagine. The nail had been torn off below the waterline, so to speak, and would eventually come off. It would, he informed me, take a year for it to grow back properly.

I can now report that he was absolutely right. It takes a whole year from the time of the trauma for the nail on a great toe to grow back. And I bet you really needed to know that.