Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Show me the way ....

It's Wednesday, and it's Santa Cruz. Actually I think I'm in a "city" called Capitola, on the California coast. Free Internet access comes with the hotel, so I'm ignoring the curious in the lobby and bashing on as though my deathless prose were some vital dispatch from a war zone.

America is soooo huge. As we flew west on Monday, the clouds parted over what I now know was Texas, snowy flat land with what looked like enormous pie-charts all over to the horizon. Apparently these were oil well areas - I thought they looked like evidence of alien activity. The the desert, with the erosion patterns which provide the backdrop for John Wayne movies clearly visible. We touched down in Las Vegas - so I saw the Luxor hotel, Neil - and then had two short hops, up and down again, to LA and then to San Jose. Miraculously the luggage had followed faithfully and was first on the carousel, and equally miraculously Casey was there too.

So far we've had the tour to see the surfers - with pelicans flying over their heads - and downtown Santa Cruz, which has all the shops and cafes you could wish for. It's as well there is no more room in my case - I could turn into Imelda Marcos with the shoes they have here, all foot-shaped and desireable. And in the afternoon we walked in a forest of giant redwoods, cousins of the ones in Benmore Gardens but growing naturally, so that you can see the "cathedral rings" where new trees have sprung from the roots of the originals and where some of the trees are hundreds of years old - the oldes felled was 2,000 years old. As dusk fell it grew spookily dark and we could hear a frog croaking in the gloom.

Today we're heading down the coast to Monterey. The morning looks bright but not (yet, I hope) sunny - yesterday we had brilliant sun in the morning and coastal fog after lunch. I am putting on pounds in weight and have begun to plan a strict regime for when I return. Meanwhile I shall breathe in and hope my waistbands will survive. Maybe the hills of San Francisco will help.

And a quick update on the photo front: 103 pics are currently lost somewhere on Casey's PC. If I find them I'll post them. But don't hold your breath - you know what PCs are like ........

Monday, January 29, 2007

Southern reflections

Pelican on a pole.
Just back from Mobile Bay - a brief stop in Birmingham before we head west to California. So many impressions that I know I must record before they're submerged in the next batch. So here goes for a patchwork of impressions from Fairhope:

Three days of brilliant sunshine and one of leaden skies and rain that became torrential as darkness fell. And under this huge, blue sky not one solar panel to power the electric climate control systems whirring outside every house. The sound of rain drumming on blue tin roofs. Storm drains lined with unromantic concrete, reminding us that things could be less than calm. Pelicans hunched in flight and on top of piers, and tall herons stalking along the bay margins. Bright red sparrow-sized Cardinals flying across the road.
Old Timers
On a more human scale, the wonderfully friendly service in shops, diners, cafes - and soda fountains and soda jerks straight out of a '50s movie. And in this same drugstore the old-timers in white trainers, and the instant transformation of an unremarkable pensioner into an unmistakeable American when he put on his baseball cap. High rise condominiums and hotels along the Gulf coast, their only concession to the possiblilty of hurricanes the stilts on which they stand, and in between them the still-uncleared debris from Katrina. And in front of them a miraculously white beach, miles and miles of sand so fine that it creaks beneath the feet the way snow does. I walked on this sand in my bare feet - and paddled in the Gulf - just because it was there, really. Irresistible.
No shoes!
Whole malls of bleak outlet stores which make Swindon seem like a village. Vast quantities of remedies on sale for every imaginable ailment - laxatives, pain relief (no paracetamol!), blood-testing kits, crutches - a hypochondriac's paradise. Huge bottles of sauce and cold tea, but the devil's own job to find a decent coffee. (Today I found an espresso bar where the girl was incredulous that I wanted only "a shot" - and then revealed that she thought she was the only person alive who drank coffee that way)

But I have maundered enough. The photos I will add when I am home - the hunt for compatible equipment takes up too much mental energy. Today I have experienced a whole range of weather, from a walk beside Mobile Bay in the teeth of a wind that blew white horses on the waves under a leaden sky that reminded me of home, to sitting in the bright sun two hours later on the end of a pier with the towers of Mobile gleaming on the horizon, to a freezing evening in Birmingham where the temperature is 32 degrees F under a clear sky. This is a huge country, and tomorrow I shall be flying over the rest of its width.

If it's Monday it must be Santa Cruz......

Note: updated with photos now that I'm home - apologies to anyone using a feed reader!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Heading south ....

Ruth & Ed's Today we leave this house in Birmingham and travel to Fairhope on the Gulf coast. As there is no computer there, I shall be silenced and deprived! However, I'm wondering if the southward migration will warm us up a bit - it's still chilly here.

Yesterday we visited Birmingham Southern College, where Ed works. We met some interesting people, including a drama teacher who is bringing a play to the Festival Fringe in August and the Professor of Organ, who delayed the lesson of a hapless freshman to talk to us and demonstrate his magnificent organ (no sniggering there!)

As we marched briskly round the perimeter of the college, I couldn't help wondering if studying in such a peaceful and attractive environment, with everything to hand and such high amenity, made for a more focussed and serene type of student - or does it encourage neurosis and introspection? The students seemed very together - and very well off, with their big cars - but perhaps the weight of repsonsibility (all these fees to be paid) plays a part.

The day ended with a party and more lovely people. At this rate they'll all be coming to the West of Scotland - I think our hosts deserve a retainer from Visit Scotland!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Rural jaunt

The house from the lake path.
Yesterday had a glimpse of rural Alabama, courtesy of my hereto virtual friend Walter. (I don't think a 10 minute meeting several years ago counts against that description) I also had my first ride in a Cadillac, in which we swept through small communities with names like Leeds. Few fences, the odd dog driven to frenzies of excitement by our passing, tall forests of wonderfully mixed trees - dogwood, Scots pine, oak trees - and tiny stores and gas stations in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

The house, when we crunched up the winding gravel drive (winding to spare the dogwood trees, apparently), turned out to be a wonderful chateau in miniature, with tall shuttered windows, balconies of wrought iron, and a terrace with chairs which didn't invite in the chilly light of yesterday. The entrance hall just begged for a string quartet to play in its domed acoustics, and there was a lemon tree in a pot with the largest lemon I've ever seen ripe in the middle of it.

And then there was "the pond". If someone says "pond" to me I think of something circular, maybe 12 feet across, maybe a fountain. I do not think of a sizeable loch surrounded by forest with a boathouse just visible at the far end. This was the pond overlooked by almost every window in the house. As Walter fixed lunch (notice the creeping Arericanisms) I saw a heron - a blue heron - flap the length of the far shore, a wonderful red-headed woodpecker scuttling up a tree just outside, and the flash of the bluest blue imaginable as a bluebird swooped over the water and made me think of sopranoes singing "blue". (That's an esoteric reference for anyone who's sung with us!)

We had a wonderful day. We walked round the loch - Walter having left clues of tape to guide us among the trees - and negotiated the stepping stones over the burn. We enjoyed the best barbecued pork of my life - recipe for the crab-apple sauce, please, Walter!) and the warmest hospitality imaginable. At the end of the afternoon we were deposited back in Brimingham, a good 45 minutes' drive away. If you read this, Walter: thank you. We won't forget.

No photos, I'm afraid - I uploaded a few yesterday morning, but don't know when I'll have another chance.
Update: Photo now added to show Walter's "pond" , as well as the house.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Birmingham observed

Great truck

Spent a fascinating if chilly couple of hours inspecting the renovation of inner-city buildings in Birmingham this morning, in the company of a group of University students - I don't know if they were all at the same stage in their course, but the young man I spoke to informed me he was a sophomore (second year). We heard from an architect how his firm are renovating an old building (it was a younger building than the one I live in, but there you are - ancient relics all).

However, the main impression from the morning was how quiet the city streets are. The cars swish along, the odd truck passes (and the trucks are superb, in a terrifying, butch sort of way) - but there are so few people. The reason for this is apparently the proliferation of out-of-town malls, so that whereas in Glasgow or London there are shops and cafes and swarms of people, here there are wide, empty streets with the wind blowing down them and only a few figures passing - and some of them are "street people". I saw only one row of retail outlets, and a couple of cafes.

The effect is disturbing. There are huge buildings which in the past were banks or office buildings and which now lie empty, or are to be transformed into condominiums. The University buildings cover a vast area, and there are wonderful hospitals, libraries, arts centres and churches. The jail sits, rather macabrely, in the middle of town. (It has very narrow horizontal windows) There are many wide open spaces - this is not a crowded city. But I hope the people who eventually move into the loft apartments and the converted tower blocks get some shops - and some nice wee cafes.

I have a hope of being able to upload some photos tomorrow - there is a man with a Mac who has kindly offered his assistance. On quite another tack, I have to tell a disbelieving public that I have been going to bed insanely early - 10.15pm last night - and getting up at 6am. It's the American way, of course, but I don't expect it to survive my recovery from jet lag!

Update: As you will see, I've managed to upload a few photos. You can see the others over at flickr

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Stars fell on Alabama?

Ubiquitous plates
Well I don't know. I come to Alabama, where they've had wonderful weather for months, and today the rain is coming down in stair-rods. I could be in Dunoon - except that the rain is vertical rather than horizontal. Maybe in a Humphrey Bogart movie instead - the ones where men's hats shine and drip and the windscreen wipers go at double speed. Hmm.

But happily I'm not in the situation of an ordinary tourist, and the experiences just get better and better. Last night we all attended the most amazing service in honour of St Aelred, of whom the Revd. Paul Woodrum said "Of all the gifts Aelred has given he church, the one most uniquely his is the joyous affirmation that we move towards God in and through our relationships with other people, not apart from or in spite of them." This Aelred fest has been organised by Integrity Alabama for the past 12 years to celebrate the contributions of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, and people come from all over to join in.

The Eucharist last night was in Grace Church, where Ruth used to serve; the church was full of people, incense (with bells on the thurible so that it tinkled at every swing!) and music. This last was quite extraordinary to someone more used to hearing bottleneck guitar played by Ry Cooder over a candlelit dinner than in a candlelit church - folk music played by authentic folk musicians. Hard to sing along with, mind, but great to listen to. The preacher was the former Bishop of Alaska Steven Charleston, a charismatic Native American with a long grey pony tail and a tendency to storm down the pews to exhort the faithful to remember that they were loved - over and over, so that the "Amens" rolled out in a manner unheard of in the Piskie churches of my experience. We laughed, we nodded, we assented. Great.

After the eucharist we were all treated to a three-course dinner in the hall, and I was asked if I was Irish, if I'd speak some more, if I'd like more wine (what do you think?) - and presented with one of the roses off the tables when I left. All this had been organised by about 20 members of Integrity, who had worked 130 volunteer hours to put everything together. The passion and commitment of Episcopalians here - or at least the ones Ruth seems to work with - forces me to look at the lukewarm climate in which we operate at home. The tiny church where we worshipped this morning, in Bessemer, has the same size of congregation as Holy Trinity, Dunoon, but every member present at the lunch and annual meeting today spoke with a fervour and enthusiasm for making things happen which left me in no doubt that things would happen.

Away from matters ecclesiastical, we continue to eat far too well and in interesting and historic places. Yesterday I had fried green tomatoes - you couldn't not, really - in a diner celebrating its 100th year, with the original marble and murals still in place, and all around the accent of the South, which sounds mellow compared to more northern voices and draws out vowels so that "bids" becomes "beeuds".

I don't feel like a tourist here. A traveller, maybe, but not a tourist. The rain is still dripping off the eaves, but Ed has lit a log fire and I'm off to laze in front of it. And then I'll eat some more....

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mocking birds at breakfast

Blethering from Birmingham, Alabama - the blethers winter tour 07? Where to start? For a start, with no photos - a lack of the necessary software makes me realise yet again why I use a Mac. Ah well. I wonder if John from Denmark, whom we met in the snazzy President's Club in Newark Airport, is reading this - because he told me all normal people use PCs. (You can see the kind of converations I end up in).

From Ruth and Ed's historic house (it has a plaque to testify to its status) we can hear the romantic hooting of the trains - I feel as if I'm in a Tennessee Willliams play or something. The road is strangely rural - broad, curving up a hill, lots of trees and shrubs. It is cold - colder than we've had it at home - but sunny and still and very dry. This morning at breakfast I saw an American robin - sort of starling-sized with a black head and a startlingly red front - and two mocking birds - mocking birds! And last night I ate one of the best meals of my life (grilled grouper from the Gulf of Mexico) and went to the ballet in town.

Right now we're organising to meet up with Lou from the Yahoo group I post on, and soon we'll be off for a visit to Ruth's church. It's all a mix of the familiar and the strange - people we know so well in a setting that is at once completely new and movie-familiar. My accent sticks out like a sore thumb, but I'm resisting the awful temptation to be a fake American.

So, enough already. I'll take the pix and post them all when I return - I may even drive anyone who reads this on RSS to drink by illustrating existing posts. But for now, 'bye, y'all - have a nice day!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

10,000 hits

A self-regarding post: my 10,000th visitor arrived this morning through Kelvin's blog. I'm sure this was an appropriate referral, complete with blessings. It's taken just over a year for this number of hits to mount up, at a current average of 34 per day. Not many, when I look at the numbers on other blogs - but not bad for retirement maunderings.

Actually, I've had an interesting proposition from Liz the other day: that I should post more about the actual business of teaching English. I'll look forward to this - but for now I'm going off-blog for a bit. Watch this space - I'll be back!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Look! "They" were right - it is a beautiful day. The sun is shining and there is no wind. Everyone is walking about with sapsy smiles, greeting strangers with weather comments and casting off their SAD right, left and centre. I'm sure the natives of this land would be more optimistic and cheerful if we could have this weather as a winter norm - and as for the effect of a glassy sea for the ferries (you can see both varieties in this photo) to run on.....

But let us not be get carried away. We'll pey for it ... you'll see.
(NB: Spelling of "pey" a deliberate attempt to replicate pronunciation)

Monday, January 15, 2007

A landmark

I notice from my stats that blethers is within 50 visits of its ten thousandth visitor. It'd be pleasing if this landmark could be reached tomorrow - and interesting to see where the hit originates from.

And it'd be almost more pleasing if tomorrow's weather forecast turns out to be accurate and we see some sun in this benighted realm.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Salt sea foam

The stygian gloom and the gales are still with us, and the sea looks nothing like the pic I posted yesterday. Rather, it is a grey, turbulent beast, with great curtains of spray whipped off the top of the breaking waves and blown wildly off to dissipate in the wind. Today, walking along the coast road, I was bent into the wind and saw nothing but the road at my feet until I'd had enough and turned my back on the gale. Liberated from the rain that had been pelting my face like lead shot, I was able to look at the surf pounding in on a south-ish gale, and from this comes my question for today:

What do you call the froth left behind on the shore by the receding waves? Like the froth on an abandoned cappuccino, it blows away in little puffs, shredding itself among the rocks. And what causes it? What is it made of?

I would love there to be a romantic, literary sort of word for this - but will settle for science.

Friday, January 12, 2007

New toy.

Sunset and Arran hills
Terribly pleased with the quality of the camera on my new phone - especially as I didn't have to pay any extra to acquire said phone! The last one tended to produce very fuzzy images, so this - of the sun setting over Bute as I travelled on the Western ferry home on the one sunny day in living memory - is a great surprise. Better still: if you send your old phone back to Vodafone, they credit your account - in my case with only slightly less than I paid for the upgrade two years ago. And they send you the prepaid padded envelope .....gosh.

My only gripe is that it's not Bluetooth and the other one was - but I think I'd rather have the good photos!

Update: As ab points out, it is Bluetooth after all - I was too impatient to explore properly!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Words, words, words....

Interesting discussion on prayer today, in the context of looking at keeping to a rule of life. Words can be such a barrier - a snare, a temptation or merely a smokescreen. And listening is so very hard ........

So that's all I have to say about that. For now, anyway.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Prelim preparation

Anyone with the patience to read the comments on this blog will have noticed that I've been having an interesting chat with Liz O'Neill about the teaching of textual analysis. This evening I scurried back from a very civilised lunch in the Rogano in Glasgow to see my two private pupils for the last time before I vanish to foreign parts for a bit and they vanish into their Higher prelim exams. In both cases we were discussing how to construct an effective Critical Essay under exam conditions: ie choose a question that has some connection with one of your texts, work out exactly what it is asking you to consider, plan how to use your knowledge of the text in order to answer the question and then write about 700 words - all in 45 minutes. Then do it again for another question and a text of a different genre from the first.

All this - and it's hard work, at this level - had me thinking further about the effective sharing of ideas on literature. It seems to me that the most meaningful learning happens when the student begins to make the connections for herself (both my current students are female, so we'll stick with that pronoun). This takes time and patience, and sensitive probing and leading to help the insecure to a place of confidence. But what if a pupil arrives in your class with four years of less than satisfactory experience of literature? (Not the case with my current pair, but a possibility) What if they've never read any particularly complex stuff until they fetched up in a Higher class? Suddenly you've got to get them to a pitch of expertise that will enable them to pass a demanding exam in January - and you've got about five and a half months to do it in, with four weeks of holidays in two blocks to break up the rhythm.

I don't feel like solving the whole mystery right here and now - the nice lunch is still affecting the brain - but would suggest the following for starters:
If you can, make sure they read a novel over the summer holiday before S5 really starts. Something big, like "Sunset Song". Start analysing it with them in week one of the first term. If they can't hack it, they'll realise something about themselves. If they find themselves passionately reacting to the situation of the heroine in the middle of discussing her home life, they're hooked. Real literature is really involving - and there is so very much to say about it. Anyone who has failed to do the reading suddenly realises that they've dealt themselves out of the conversation, and either gets the finger out or gives up the ghost.

If you leave something as big as that till later in the term, you'll never do it. They'll get bogged down in Maths homework (it was always maths) and have no time to sit and read an extended text. You'll be stuck with short stories or jounalism for the Prose option - and that's not always ideal. My aim was always to have the novel plus, say, two of Doris Lessing's short stories - Lessing because she is such a superb crafter of language that every word and phrase tells and nothing is redundant. But what you absolutely must build in is the opportunity to talk about these texts - with you, with each other - so that they own them. It's not enough to set them questions to wrestle with in writing when they haven't the basic personal understanding that is only achieved through discussion and turning back to the text to back themselves up. And it is we the teachers who have to ask the hard questions, the whys and the hows, the whats and the what ifs, that will set their critical faculties working efficiently - and it is we who have to be the first to react with enthusiasm when they start to get it. You can do this in class time - because when you're with them it's a better use of your time that sitting doing your own thing while they write. I used to do it orally - with them all joining in, I hoped. Now I'd perhaps do it differently - a blog might involve everyone simultaneously.

But I'd really miss the chat.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Writing again

I've been writing again - a new poem which you can find over at frankenstina. The subject matter had been swirling gently in my head for a few days - since driving round the Holy Loch on one of these days when you're always looking out for the next downpour, heralded usually by the sudden disappearance of some landmark which had been perfectly visible two minutes previously. A smidgin of blue sky reminded me that above the clouds it's always a sunny day - a revelation that still amazes me every time I take off in a plane. The poem finally appeared at half past midnight last night, so sleep proved elusive.

I'm having bothers, however, in formatting my poems for satisfactory layout on the screen. The short half-line at the beginning of the second section of this poem should appear below where it would have been had it stayed on the line above, where rhythmically speaking it belongs. If anyone can supply an idiot's guide to the correct html to achieve this, I'd be grateful. (I've tried centering, but this sticks it miles away in mid-screen.)

However, I am decidedly pleased by the fact that this poem came to me in the form in which it appears. After being hung up with a regular metre for some months now, it was with a grateful bow to the memory of RST that I felt free once more to go with the words and my inner ear. It's early days yet to see if I think it's a success, but I enjoyed the process.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Man who went into the West

Before I end my current train of thought, I'd like to comment briefly on Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man who went into the West. I finished reading it yesterday, and as usual after enjoying a book so much, I feel bereft. It was totally absorbing, so that I had to ration myself into reading it in relatively short bursts and not stay awake half the night to finish it.

Many biographies begin with the birth of the subject - or even of his parents - which is often so far from the character of interest to the reader that boredom can set in long before the subject's adult life is reached. But on page 4 of his "Introduction", Rogers quotes extensively from something he had written 30 years ago, giving what he calls "a snapshot" of Thomas when he interviewed him, aged 62, and then going back fifteeen years earlier, when Rogers was only 17, to describe "a very tall, lean athletic man, his face quite unlike any other I had ever seen. It had no spare flesh, so that afterward I remembered cheek bones, forehead, chin; ... The face was hard, severe, almost predatory. ..... The face was the face of the poems."

As Andrew Motion comments in his review of this book, "Looked at from one angle, the result is a jumble: impressionistic, prone to repetition, confusing about precisely what happened when, and excessively self-referring. From another point of view, it is engagingly high-spirited and daring." He is right, of course, but it is that very jumble that engages, and the repetition which you can't help noticing actually reinforces links in a way which a more ordered biography might not. But what shines from this book is the author's fondness personally for the poet and his poetry; an understanding which communicates to anyone who has felt their guts contract at one of Thomas' extraordinary last lines. Mix this closeness with the personal reminiscences of not only parishioners - for we had some of those in Justin Wintle's "Furious Interiors", a biography writen without Thomas' cooperation - but also of his son and grandson, his daughter-in-law and his two remarkable wives, and you have a rounded picture of a gifted and complex man, a picture which brings me at least closer to understanding the poems and the thought behind them.

My interest, as I said previously, goes back to when in the first days of 1987 I set about analysing one of his poems, "Evans", to set questions on it for an exam paper. Analysis, rather than simple reading, brought home to me what was going on in the poem and fired me with a need to know more, to read more. I also fired off a fan letter, pure and simple, care of Thomas' publishers. Within a week, I received a postcard in the wild writing now familiar from the signature facsimile on the Selected Poems 1946-68. Having learned from the Rogers book that such an item now has monetary value as well as the huge personal value to me from that moment, I've had it scanned, and reproduce it here. Years later, in 1999 - the year before Thomas died - I received another letter, this time asking me how I felt now that we had in Scotland a parliament of our own. The old Welsh nationalist was in full flight in that letter, though the wild writing has grown spidery with age.

Rogers' biography points out that Thomas always replied to letters. I feel I knew that already, as I knew instinctively many of the things I found in this book. When he died, I felt I had lost a heroic companion. But now I have spent a week in his company, brought there by a journalist with an easy manner and an unobtrusive charm. I'm not lending anyone my copy - but you should read it. Really.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Enjambement - again

Thought I'd indulge myself with a post about enjambement. Not much chance of a wide readership for this one, but I must be missing the classroom or something.

The poem referred to in the previous post, R.S.Thomas' "Evans", uses enjambement in what I would recognise as two different modes. The start of the poem tells how the poet recalled his leaving of the sick man's house, and here the enjambement suggests an almost breathless haste, as if the visiting vicar, "appalled" at his failure to help the man in any way, cannot wait to be outside again.
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle's
Whine, and so into the cold

However, there is also the prominence of the words which start the lines: accompaniment, whine, dark - and "dark" is used here as a noun, as Thomas goes on to talk about "the dark/ silting the veins of that sick man", a dark that the light of faith cannot alleviate. A complex poem reflecting on the failure of a complex man to fulfil his secondary calling - that of priest - in the language that Thomas saw as his one refuge from a world "glib with prose."

As he grew older, Thomas used this device even more starkly, as here, from "Launching a Prayer":
The stripling posturing
before the hero;
the mature man
posturing before


Here, the stanza break (this is a three stanza poem) emphasises, builds up to the word "God" - and Thomas always thought of God with awe.

I'd like to look briefly at favourite examples of enjambement from two other poets - my response to sorlil's comment yesterday. The first is from Norman McaCaig's "Visiting Hour". The poet, on his way to visit an apparently dying woman in hospital, writes:
I will not feel, I will not
feel, until
I have to.
Read that aloud and the jaw-clenching self-control is brought out by the marking of the line breaks as much as by the repetition of the words "will not feel".

Similarly, in T.S.Eliot's great poem "Journey of the Magi", one of the "wise men" who sought the infant Christ looks back over his life at that momentous journey so long ago.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
As the old man dictates to a scribe, his hesitation as he searches for words to express his bafflement are there in the enjambement, along with the repetition that underlines his determination to convey his overwhelming question.

Great. It took me such a long time to realise this, but it was worth the wait. A final thought for the educators out there: it's when you're really fired up by something you teach, as I am by poetry of this calibre, that the magic happens. There is this awesome responsibilty not to let the poet down by your teaching - death by a thousand cuts to the teacher who cares not! I'll give R.S Thomas the last say on such moments:
But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them.....
(The Chapel)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Enjambement and R.S. Thomas

I'm reading Byron Rogers' new (2006) biography of R.S. Thomas, and though I've not quite reached the end and want to say more about the book as a biography, I've just read a fascinating, and to me exciting, section where Thomas is quoted on the development of his writing style during his last ministry in Aberdaron, where, as Thomas said, "My poetry underwent a change of style"..."I broke up the lines..." He mentioned in a letter "some people ...still nit-picking about my so-called lack of form"and goes on :"I wish they'd catch up."

His explanation of what he was about makes an immediate impression on me. "When I write, I'm listening with an inner ear to the way it sounds. I build the poem up like that. And if there's a word too many, it goes into the next line. But the thing is that I never really wrote them to be read out loud. There's a contradiction here: they may look artificial on the page, but they must sound right..."

The reason for my excitement about this? Ever since the Chrismas holiday of 1987, when, charged with making up the Practical Criticism paper for the Higher English Prelim exam, I chose Thomas' poem "Evans" as the text, I have been an avid reader of his poetry. Analysing that one poem in order to set questions on it drew me into a world where I felt at home, and influenced the style in which I would begin to write seriously. I didn't think about it at the time, but if you immerse yourself sufficiently in a poet's work, it obviously has an effect. And years later, when people had begun to read my stuff, I was asked why I used enjambement in the way I did.

My answer reflected, I now learn, the reaction of Byron Rogers to Thomas' poems: the run-overs (as he calls them) allow you to emphasise the words which come at the beginning of a line. Because I had no teacher, no mentor with me to discuss my writing, I felt shaken in this knowledge when others - including Edwin Morgan - asked me if this was something I really wanted to do. The implied answer was usually "no" - and for a while I have dabbled with metre and rhythm in a way which irritates me. Suddenly, I feel liberated.

Why am I writing this now? Because it pleases me to record it. An epiphany on the eve of Epiphany. And I'll be back on R.S.T. later .....

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

March of the Penguins

Just been watching the amazing "March of the Penguins" - another component of the Christmas haul at The Blethers. An interesting effect of becoming so absorbed in the heroic dedication of the penguins to the whole business of procreation was that for most of the film I forgot that there had to be people there filming. However, these film-makers must have been possessed of their own brand of determination and dedication, for I cannot imagine how they got some of the shots they did.

Escapism? or a reinforcing of the need for us not to make such a mess of looking after this planet we inhabit? Maybe neither - or both - but a humbling recognition that we are not alone in our efforts to live well. Well worth a look - check out this site for a taster.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mixed feelings

Today was sunny. It is unbelievable the difference this makes to life here: the gloom of a stormy day which merges into darkness in the afternoon seems to bring all sorts of pressures, not the least being the sense that there is so little time to do anything in a day, so that you feel your life is drifting past - or galloping past, more like. But today I was walking on Loch Striven, surrounded by the rushing of the many small torrents which had erupted on the hillside above, looking at a lonely seal doing back exercises on a rock and a disdainful cormorant-like bird ignoring it. All very peaceful, very restorative.

And then there was the naval vessel refuelling at the NATO fuel base on Loch Striven. It looked enormous against the sun, filling the end of the pier, looming rustily in my viewfinder. I remembered how, in my activist era, I once wove a CND symbol from snowdrops on the wire gate there. And I reflected on how simple the cold war era now seems, with Iraq once more boiling over the execution of Saddam, and how it feels to have voted for a government which made such things come about.

And I realised how glad I was to have the joyous frivolities of my blog comments to return to. Heads back in the sand, chums - quick.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Five things you don't know about me?

Well well. First post of 2007 is in response to being tagged by Mrs. O'Neill to do the "Five things ...." - so a self-indulgent New Year's morning (well, it's actually the afternoon, but the day began late) thinking about moi. Here goes - and I'd like to know if any of these things are new to Ewan!

1. I was nearly born a month prematurely - prevented, I was told, by my grandfather's not allowing my mother to attend the VE Day celebrations in George Square. And when I did appear on the scene, my newly-demobbed father called his 2 month old daughter "the Belsen baby" because (a) I was so skinny (don't things change?) and (b) the horrors of Belsen were uppermost in people's minds.

2. I had my tonsils taken out on the kitchen table of our top floor flat in Hyndland. I was seven, and I can remember it with alarming clarity. The kitchen was full of nurses and doctors - apparently observing this practice before it went completely out of fashion - and I had to sit on a fat nurse's knee while they anaesthetised me with a mask onto which something was dripped. (Aagh). I don't think I was completely unconscious, as I could hear clatterings and was aware of a bright light throughout. Afterwards, I threw up down the wrong side of the bed (the one next to the wall). The stain was still there when we left the house three years later.

3. When I was ten, I had a passion for shoes which made a noise when I walked. I persuaded my father to hammer segs into the heels of my school shoes. By the time I had my first pair of "heels" at 15, the fashion was for stilettoes and the little metal tips would ruin the lino - so none of my friends was allowed to keep their shoes on if they came to visit.

4. I always wanted to learn to abseil and rock climb. I used to draw mountaineers doing classic abseils - using only the rope rather than karabiners etc - down the inside covers of my school text books. This hurt no-one except my concentration, as I went to the kind of school where you had to buy your own text books. You could tell the boring subjects by the density of the illustrations. In the end, I learned to abseil when I was 46 and it felt exactly as I had always imagined, so I had no fear and scooshed down the cliff at Benmore on Loch Eck like the SAS.

5. When I was small - about 3, I think - I had decided views on aspects of my life. (I know - what's new about that?) One was that I didn't like being a little girl, so that if someone said kindly "And what's your name, little girl?" I'd reply "I'm not a little girl. I'm a boy and my name's Peter Pan." (Really) And I often embarrassed my mother when someone to whom she might talk came along; I would look resolutely at my feet and say "I don't talk to this lady." And I didn't. But when it came to my interview with the child psychiatrist to see if I was suitable Hillhead High School material (I was 5) I apparently took the hand of this terrifying figure with a nicotine-stained white walrus moustache, smiled sweetly and went off with him. I got into the school; the child who screamed and wept at the psychiatrist did not.

And now, having done this, I see that my whole life was mapped out with a terrible inevitability. Fascinating.

And I tag: Ruth, Kelvin, Kenny, Di - to get her blogging again - and David, who's been far too quiet these hols.