Monday, April 30, 2007


I was once again thinking of retiring properly - of not teaching anyone for a bit, now that Higher English is almost upon us - when out of the blue came the kind of proposition I just couldn't ignore. A luminously bright student to "educate" in the old-fashioned business of Eng. Lit. - Shakespeare and that kind of thing. My choice. As a by-product, we achieve a Credit 1 next year and a Higher A the year after. A challenge, but goodness does it sound like fun.

So I'm doing it, and we start in a couple of weeks. At the moment I'm thinking about the best online methods of keeping the impetus going between lessons. Ewan has already suggested using Skype and Google Docs plus a blog of best work. I've not used Google Docs before, so want to see how it compares with Quick Topic for ease of use (if anyone already has a take on this I'd like to hear from them). I realise that doing this sort of thing only intermittently means I get left behind a bit, but at the same time I relish the prospect of some real hard work on exciting texts.

Today I suggested to my current student that she might like to sit in the garden for her lesson. I don't know whether it was the proximity of the exam or the sunshine and cool breeze that gave her an edge, but she's doing much better at the old Interpretation. (I'm sure I shouldn't be calling it that.) Exam weather always has a bittersweet edge to it. Let's hear it for all the kids facing exams right now!

Everybody out?

Well, who'da thunkit? Seems (according to recent polls) that the Nats might actually pull it off this Thursday and achieve a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Apparently, too, Alex Salmond is suggesting that independence could be reversible - that we could give it a try and then go back into the Union if we didn't like it.

Who is he kidding? I bet the rest of the UK wouldn't want us back for one moment. I have it on reliable authority that Londoners are sick of subsidising our economy, so presumably they'd wash their hands of us in glee if we removed ourselves from their orbit.

On the other hand - where would the UK government dump Trident? Interesting times, huh?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Overwhelming question

As a result of an interesting conversation with Neil yesterday, I've been thinking - again - about faith. We were discussing Richard Dawkins - no, I haven't read the book, but he has - and it struck me how impossible it is actually to defend religious belief. When faced with the fact that people blow other people up in the name of religion, it's only possible to point out that some faith systems are over 500 years behind Christianity in development, and that 500 years ago Christians were still burning each other at the stake for heresy. And while this is mildly interesting, it's hardly inspiring. It's also true that there are Christians today who seem not to have advanced much beyond this state of mind; they are high profile and outsiders assume we're all the same, so all that's left is dissociation - a case of "That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all".

There I go again. Poetry. But for me poetry holds the key to talking about God - the key of nuance and metaphor, of association and suggestion. Using prose is like pinning the butterfly - dead already - to the wall, for closer examination. And then there's music, opening the soul and enabling the senses. But not prose, at once too specific and too blunt. I'm just glad I don't have to preach every week.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A day in Paradise

Last view of upper glen
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Yesterday, the weather doing what it had said on the tin, I paid a visit to my bit of Paradise. By 11am we were on the road up Glen Rosa on Arran; I wasn't sure how far we could reasonably expect to walk before turning back to catch the last ferry but like the reasonably fit maniacs that we are we made it to The Saddle, which you can see as the dip at the head of the glen in the photo, with the dramatic V of Ceum na Cailleach behind it. Both Glen Rosa and Glen Sannox, which rises to the other side of the Saddle, are perfect examples of glaciated valleys, with the jagged peaks which make the Arran hills so special rising above the smooth U-shapes of the glens.

This was the first time I'd walked in Arran so early in the year, and I was very struck by the difference in Glen Rosa, a place I know as well as any on earth. The usual soft green of the boggy grass and the blog myrtle had instead the appearance of a dry savannah -and we saw deer on the far side of the burn who might as well have been springbok; they seemed to be more dun-coloured than the red I would expect and were almost invisible. The vital ingredient of the scent of bog myrtle was also missing, as the tiny yellow flowers only smell if rubbed.

What I love about this place is its unchanging nature. The village of Brodick is different in feel from the village of my childhood - bleak hotels, the Douglas with its windows boarded up, the village beach much stonier and the grass behind it encroaching on the dunes - but from the moment you pass the war memorial you could be back in the '50s. As for the glen, the only difference is the path - we didn't have to skip through dub and mire in the old way, thanks to the National Trust. (The plaque made sure we knew who dunnit)

I've taken about 60 photos of the day, which you can see here. I must have more photos of Arran than of any other place on earth, but not digital ones. I was indulging myself in every way. I could almost convince myself that my knees still had some bounce in them - almost. It was a perfect day. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Women's work?

Yesterday Kimberly sent me this wonderful photo as a possible image of women's ministry. And yesterday I read this:
"The risen Christ gave Mary Magdalene a commission. 'Go' is her mission, and 'tell my brethren' is her commission. A commission, to publish the first news of his rising, and as it falls out, of his ascending too.
The Fathers say that by this word she was by Christ made an apostle, nay 'an apostle to the apostles themselves.' An apostle, for what lacks she? Sent first, immediately from Christ himself; and what is an apostle but so? Secondly, sent to declare and make known. And last, what was she to make known? Christ's rising and ascending. And what are they but 'the gospel', yea the very gospel of the gospel?
The first gospel of all is the gospel of this day, and the gospel of this day is this Mary Magdalene's gospel, the prime gospel of all, before any of the other four. That Christ is risen and upon his ascending, and she the first that ever brought these glad tidings. At her hands the apostles themselves received it first, and from them we all.
So was it ... that Christ finding her where he should have found (the other apostles) and did not, (is fain) to send by the hand of her that he first found at the sepulchre's side, and to make himself a new apostle. And send her to them, ... to catechise them in two articles of the Christian Faith, the resurrection and the ascension of Christ. To Mary Magdalene, they and we both owe them, the first notice of them."
And which contemporary feminist (with, admittedly, a penchant for quaint archaisms of language) wrote this? Sorry, men. It comes from a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, preached before King James I at Whitehall on Easter Day 1622.

So ... what took you so long?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Joined up people

Wow. My beloved PowerBook had a brain transplant this afternoon and suddenly the pages are flashing up – great. It’s the only functioning brain today; mine is in hibernation mode after a weekend of being mother’s little helper at the end of a Cursillo weekend. It was great to see our friend Dennis so obviously having had a wonderful time, and faintly awesome for me to be commissioned as the Lay Rector for the next weekend, in August. I kept thinking “Who’da thunkit?” all afternoon, as I remembered my own weekend in 2000. The photo shows the church at St Mary's Retreat Centre, Kinnoull, where the weekend took place.

The contrast between the activities of my week was as stark as I suggested the other day. However, I was given space yesterday to tell people about a new web community using ning, which seems to me a promising way of keeping in contact. I see no good reason why Christians should not be as web-savvy as the rest of us, and equally no good reason why age should be considered a valid barrier to communication. I’m happy to report that requests for invitations are beginning to trickle in; we may yet have a viable online network there. How will I know it’s working?

When I no longer feel the need to post on it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Two sides of the coin

On a dreich West Coast morning, when the East Bay has all but vanished in a haze of rain, I'm preparing to go to Perthshire, where the rain may be less but I shall be too busy to notice. Supervising the clearing-up process after a Cursillo weekend is not something I look forward to, but provides the trigger to some thought about the different activities this Christian journey involves us in. Yesterday cerebral; tomorrow physical.

And I don't know which is the more satisfying - surprising though that may sound. Wrestling with the concepts of theology and Christology (and several other ologies on the way) is stimulating and indulges in the kind of mental gymnastics I have always enjoyed, while making beds and lugging boxes about represents the Martha side of life that I tend to avoid whenever possible. And Cursillo tends not to be on the cerebral side of Christianity - though there are some luminously cerebral people involved. But I know that tomorrow will be hard work and hilarity; exasperation tempered by a determination to display love and cheerfulness; and above all the desire to celebrate a faith which is alive and well and living in all of us.

And quite apart from any preference on my part, I have a feeling that it's very good for me!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The cruellest month

My title today comes with the photo, taken on a hillside above the mouth of Glen Massan: the first violets of the season. Once more my phone has been unable to replicate their particular shade of violet; the white balance is set at "automatic" and I would welcome comment on what to do about it. But yesterday felt quite cruel, mainly because I was at a committee meeting which reminded me how much I dislike meetings.

We've come a long way, have we not, from a society in which we expect meetings to be conducted in code - a code which, I have to say, I associate with predominantly male gatherings. I'm thinking of obfuscation masquerading as politeness, or discretion, or perhaps plain old paternalism. Situations in which nobody questions directly, or admits to not seeing any sense in a course of action, lest they be seen as stupid or troublemakers or both. I don't know anything at all about the world of business, a traditionally male-orientated world where women are now a force to be reckoned with: is there still a tendency for the "don't you worry your pretty little head about that" to creep in?

However, I do know about the church. The Pisky church in particular. Goodness, how we've changed in the 30-odd years since I first served on the now-defunct Provincial Synod. There are still dark glimpses of attitudes which belong to another age - attitudes to women which remain untouched by modern thought - but the joy comes when I realise they are no longer typical. It's when they surface under my nose that I grow fierce. Maybe April is a good month for growth - and not just of violets.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I've just finished reading this wonderfully laddish book, and despite being a bit long in the tooth for laddishness, to say nothing of a small matter of gender, I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I was influenced by the main character's being (a) a woman and (b) a grandmother (she had her own daughter early, so don't picture grey hair and arthritis). This character, Jane, does the most satisfyingly dreadful things when compelled by the mother lioness bit of all our natures to defend her family - and in so doing escapes a life of extreme hoovering and avoiding making footprints on her wet floor.

Whenever I start reading one of Brookmyre's books - and for familial reasons I've actually read all but the most recent which is being saved for a holiday - I feel I can't be bothered. Perhaps it was the piling on of techy detail in the opening chapter which put me off this time, or the tendency to stockpile adjectives - "The blase and cocky figure who was so nonchalantly leaning ..." - but I'm glad I persevered. The story is, as usual, wonderfully filmic, and results in unputdownablity. The dialogue is slick, the Glasgow bits authentic and the violence often extreme. And he does women pretty well, actually - if you like women to play with the big boys.

All fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Indeed.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Frogs and sheep

Summer begins on the banks
Originally uploaded by Edublogger.
A jolly outing to Leith today felt like a visit to a foreign land. Partly it was because of the weather, which was balmy even in those eastern shores (pictured), partly because in Daniel's Bistro it was assumed that we were all four of us French. This was not because Mr B and I were conversing fluently en Francais, but because, apparently, the owner had always assumed that Edublogger was French and he'd introduced us as "mes parents". Anyway, the meal was great and the subsequent promenade around the port most agreeable.

And on the way home I saw a wondrous sight. There were sheep grazing on the grass pyramids at what was the Motorola factory on the M8. They were quite unlike the daft sheep in yesterday's game. They were a wonderful, un-sheepish red.


Friday, April 13, 2007

All we like sheep.....

When the weather turns quite as gorgeous as today’s has been, it’s less tempting to sit at a computer. But I know that many of you lucky people will be returning to work soon (or have already done so) and so post this link, in the same spirit as I offered the snowball fight at Christmas, so that when you have to sit at a computer you have something deeply silly on which to waste your precious time. I’m currently stuck on the middle score.

Be warned: it’s fatal to try to read their foolish expressions.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

All fun and games ...

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The title of this post might alert the sharp-eyed to the novel I've been reading (more Mars bars?), but gives a pretty good indication of an excellent day. Holy Trinity church stands on a hill at the foot of the Bishop's Glen, and in the grounds (extensive) there are several extremely mature trees. In the winter gales they moult - twigs, sticks and whole branches - and the resulting debris makes for a scarey ride on the tractor mower. Today I picked up more than half of these bits; Cynddylan (aka Mr B) did interesting things with the tractor mower and the Rector produced sackfuls of wonderful dead weedery and used it to do her Ray Mears thing with the fire.

It was a wonderful day. The sun was wall to wall, the birds were giving it laldy, the wood smoke drifted under the trees, the fire was so hot that all was reduced to a small pile of grey ash, and we had a picnic. We ended with the regular midweek Eucharist, scented by bonfire instead of incense.

Another good thing was the reappearance of Progress report as one of The Teens prepares for Higher English - though I have to confess that tonight I'm too tired for more than perfunctory comment on her essay - interestingly on the same piece of journalism that we were considering yesterday.

And one bad thing. What kind of person owns a dog, diligently picks up and bags its excrement - and then leaves the malodorous little parcel in the middle of the pavement, or (worse) tied to a fence? I rest my case ....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Deathless prose?

I've just had one of my pupils in, anxious about how to write a critical essay on a piece of journalism the class had studied. She'd missed the lesson and was floundering. We spent an hour of hard analysis; it was quite a humorous piece with some good tricks of the trade to talk about. But I felt myself increasingly puzzled by the content. It felt .... dated.

Answer: it was dated. Dated 1991, in fact. It was photocopied from a book - presumably a collection of writing from the period when the book was first compiled. It would be out of date before publication. What is the point of this? Journalism is surely, by definition, fresh - we can admire the style of a master like, say, Clive James, but he was even funnier first time around.

For most of my teaching career it was really difficult to supply good up-to-the-minute factual prose in quantities suitable for class use. But now that there is widespread online access to global journalism, should we not be encouraging our students to explore, to find what is worth reading - and to justify their choices? And if they're going to write about it in the SQA exams, what chance is there that the examiner will have read the same piece? It's not Wuthering Heights, for heaven's sake.

I dunno. It made me feel sad, this sunny holiday afternoon, to see that 16-year-old piece, photocopied and annotated. And I'm afraid it showed. We have a long way to go.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Of Dogs (with a nod to Bacon)

A very large dog
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I’ve been thinking about … dogs.

We live in a very odd society. Over the last few weeks – to say nothing of the past 60 years (aagh) – I’ve heard perfectly ordinary, respectable, otherwise kindly people say that they can’t stand young babies (“I like them when they can talk back”) or adolescents (“I’m frightened of teenagers”/”I can’t talk to them”/”they were only nice till they were ten; now they’re awful”). No-one bats an eyelid at such remarks. And the converse is true also – I find that when I admit to having enjoyed my time in the classroom, and that I especially liked teaching adolescent boys, people think I’m a freak.

So it’s ok not to like kids. But try saying in polite company that you don’t like dogs. That’s quite another matter. Especially if you aren’t necessarily afraid of them (not the wee ones anyway). If it’s merely a matter of repugnance then you’re a pariah. Apparently like-minded people, people with whom you have a good relationship, suddenly shut up, as if you’d confessed to necrophilia. It’s very odd indeed.

Imagine this scenario: your best pal takes up with a man who, for starters, always wears a hairy coat. He never takes it off, regardless of the weather. He is, therefore, smelly. He bathes only rarely, but likes to wallow in muddy ditches. Smells again. He never, ever, cleans his teeth. (You’re getting it). He has no awareness of other people’s personal space, which he invades with joyful abandon. He comes into your house, if you let him, and pokes his nose into everything. He sticks that same nose into malodorous messes (supply your own) and then into your face. He scratches his privates noisily and with abandon. He will never grow out of any of these traits, and he will never make up for them with witty conversation.

If that scenario did indeed apply to your pal’s latest (human) squeeze, you could deplore him with impunity to the rest of the sisterhood. But see when it’s a dog?

Very, very odd.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Reasons for (non)attendance.

Trouble with voluntary organisations is that you can't coerce folk into doing things. You can't make them do homework, appear on time - or indeed appear at all. You rely on goodwill, loyalty and an inherent unwillingness to let others down.

The church is a voluntary organisation in which there are a few professionals and a floating mass of people who have their own reasons for attending - or not attending. No-one is coerced into being there at a specific time, though some of the volunteers are more pressed into service than others. In fact, giving someone a job often ensures that they will be there on that day - though they equally might just not bother.

The priest has to be there. The organist is missed when he/she takes a break - and usually this will be timed to avoid any major festival. Everyone else is free to drift in and out as the spirit moves them. It's hard to predict and it's hard on the committed.

But I don't understand why the spirit would keep anyone away over Easter.

The title is yet another quote. The usual rules apply - unless you're sick of chocolate.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

He is risen .....

Easter garden
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
On this Easter morning, it seems strange to be blogging instead of worshipping - a matter of logistics, when there are three congregations and one priest. But I have indeed celebrated the Resurrection - last night, at the Paschal Vigil service. Think Christmas Eve, with daffodils and a warm(ish), still night so that the candles didn't blow out and the congregation huddled in the darkness didn't freeze to death. Think yards of plainsong - the Exultet, which I sang (the first time a woman has sung this in the past 30-odd years in Holy T) along with KB to do the specifically priestly bits. Think Alleluias and a new setting of the Scottish Liturgy by John McIntosh, aka Mr B.Think joy and excitement.

And if all this sounds a tad strange if you know the nature of our church, with its damp walls and peeling paintwork, our small and aging congregation and lack of money, then think again. For a start, of course, the message of Easter doesn't change because you have a cash-flow problem. But it's not just that. I have occasionally worshipped in big city churches, where there is order, hordes of well-drilled servers, a clutch of clergy and visible youth presence. But I have never felt as moved as I do here, in the solid dark of the countryside (that's another thing: Holy T. is so far out of town as to be unaffected by street lighting), where the New Fire leaps and crackles dangerously under the trees and the Paschal Candle is the only illumination as we enter the church. The screech of a distant owl is less disruptive than the roar of traffic, and the crack of twigs underfoot can't have changed in two thousand years.

I was in a state of some tension before all this began; the Exultet is very long and I have a tendency to go sharp when excited. But when it came to the bit, even though I could barely see the music, the excitement seemed to be translated into the joy of the proclamation itself and I've never felt so absorbed and focussed.

Of course things go astray in the strangeness of a special service - but this is real life too - no? An aleatoric alleluia, the strange colour of the water used to asperge us (was it the jug? or the water from the back tap?), the vanishing incense (it returned) - none of this mattered. In fact, I don't think it was noticed at the time. It was wonderful. All wonderful.

And then we had the bubbly at the back of the church .....

Note: The Kilbride Mass will be available after copyright clearance.

Friday, April 06, 2007

In the midst of life...

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Yesterday I referred to the feeling of headlong movement through Holy Week, and wondered at the time what it would feel like to be still and contemplative during this time. But when I consider this idea, as I did in fact have time to last evening during the Maundy Watch, I realise that perhaps the experience of breathlessness is closer to reality. St Mark's gospel has Jesus teaching, as it were, right up to the wire - right up till that last supper with his disciples he is teaching, countering argument, vigorously doing what he has been doing throughout his ministry, but with what looks like renewed urgency.

And then there is the prayer in the Garden, after which the guards come and he is taken off to face a hasty mockery of a trial. Within 15 hours, say, he is dead on a cross. In our tradition, we ponder on sign and symbol, we celebrate beautiful liturgies, we use music and silence to help our prayers. But of course it wasn't like that. Perhaps we should celebrate our liturgies in the supermarket, or in the main road, with people staring curiously or shouting abuse or merely tutting because we're in their way and they want past. Perhaps then we'd feel some of the pain of rejection and lack of interest; perhaps then we'd know what it feels like suffer intensely while the uncaring world gets on with its life.

Auden, in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts" makes the point " That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, " - while life goes on all around it. I have just told a bemused cold caller from somewhere far to the east of here that no, he couldn't speak to either of us because it was Good Friday and we were otherwise engaged and not wanting to buy insurance or a new phone system. He hung up without further ado and I came back to finish writing this. Life going on.

And now I shall wander up the road to church and have some silence.

Note: There is a new poem on Maundy Thursday over on frankenstina

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tallis and trembling.

Candles and stained glass
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Home again on a sunlit Maundy Thursday morning, I have time to reflect briefly on the past four days before the headlong rush of Holy Week takes over again. And that's what it feels like - partly, I suspect, because I've been in the place of the provider of services for others, rather than quietly observing and praying. In Cumbrae, we sang every day - Choral Evensong, plainsong Compline. And then there were the rehearsals - for it doesn't matter that the three of us have sung together for forty years; we may sound polished and unanimous, but it takes constant work.

And time to work was what we haven't had. This fact came rather pointedly home to roost yesterday, when the Tallis Lamentations came ... unstuck ... for a bit. Music of such complexity, sung one voice to a part (5 parts), can unravel alarmingly if one singer gets out. One beat miscounted and suddenly it all feels wrong, like a dislocated knee. The dreaded moment comes when your own entry is compromised by the missing part (the out-of-time one having given up at that point) on which you were relying for your own entry. Disaster in these circumstances is represented by a sort of gentle whining sound, like an air-raid siren whose power has failed. This, gentle reader, was my predicament for all of one and a half pages. I knew where we were - I even pointed it out to the chap next to me, who had become more confused than I - I simply coudn't fix the pitch.

After an eternity I found it, and shortly afterwards we arrived at the end of a section. We completed the piece in reasonable style, and realised that only a few people would have known what had happened. I feel especially sorry for the friend who, having arrived to enjoy listening, found herself sitting among us to help singing the canticles and the hymn; she had to crouch helplessly in the midst of all this angst. Not much peace there.

Ah well. We keep hearing that it's good to be able to fail and learn from it. What did we learn? Humility? Or perhaps simply that we should take more time to rehearse and sing together? Especially when we add in extra voices. Great music demands great attention. I fear that this week we had to learn that lesson again.