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.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


I really didn't intend to blog much about Second Life, but have been sufficiently intrigued by my recent visits and what happened there to pursue the topic one more time. Wandering about the empty landscape of the Learn4Life island is ...well, frankly, boring. There's a limit to how much I can amuse myself without company in any life, real or virtual, and so far I've only encountered someone there twice. They were civil and helpful and behaved just as educators should.

But this is where I started thinking about the implications of using this environment educationally. I know there are rules about age restrictions in "mature" areas - but how do you ensure that everyone is honest about their age? Go to some of the more exotic locations and you're likely to meet people - and be invited to explore, to be someone's friend, to join them in a teleport to a location complete with furry rugs and log fire and objects which allow you to indulge in a variety of sexual fantasies with whoever happens to be around. I don't know how I'd feel if my teenage daughter, say, was sitting alone in her room having a virtual affair with a strange avatar. Would I dismiss it as part of the learning experience, as safe as reading Lady Chatterley's Lover? Or would I be concerned about the possibility of harassment, or of some crossover into the real world?

And I really don't know how I feel about this - it's not merely a rhetorical device to say so. But I do know that I find it insidious, personally; that the images have a disturbing tendency to recur in an obsessive manner; that I find myself noticing that someone (a real someone) is standing just the same way as some avatar I've seen. Maybe it's because of the visual element. Books don't have the same effect.

I'd welcome input, if anyone else cares to join in!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

3:10 to a malt loaf?

A couple of weeks ago I had an amusing trawl through some childhood memories over a discussion of the current film 3:10 to Yuma. 50 years ago - oh, Lord - 50 years ago I was taken by my parents to see the original movie with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and recalling this experience I wondered at the description of the new Russell Crowe version as a taut thriller. I had the memory that Glenn Ford spent the entire time handcuffed to a bed and that I spent the entire time wishing something would happen. At that age, like Polonius, I needed a jig or a tale of bawdry or I slept - or at least some action, and that was strangely lacking. Maybe I was too young to appreciate the tension, and I certainly felt no sympathy for the miserable-looking Van Heflin.

These recollections led the discussion on to another childhood memory: Youma bread. There was a brief moment of doubt about the spelling, but it's not the same as the filmic town and Googling the correct spelling brought up a discussion about this wee malt loaf here, if you're interested - that's where I found this picture. In its later incarnations it came wrapped in waxed paper - white, green, red, touch of yellow? - and was always very sticky and very dense. It tended to survive well in a rucksack or schoolbag, and cried out for some butter. Talking about it brought back the taste, the smell, the texture - and yet I cannot think how long it is since I ate any. It doesn't exist any more, and I doubt I'd buy it if it did, but it was one of the tastes of childhood.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Baffled of Dunoon

Over breakfast this morning (yes, I was late) I found myself listening to an extraordinarily mind-boggling conversation on Melvyn Bragg's programme. At first it was just background burbling, until this sentence hit me:
"There is something subtly different between matter and anti-matter, and that's what we're trying to find out."
And when I'd poured another cup of tea:
"There's an awful lot more out there .... Dark matter emitting spectral light ....Dark because it doesn't shine, but it has gravity, so it's stuff."
Stuff. What a pleasantly ordinary word. I love it when scientists speak like the rest of humanity. Like when one of them butted in with the information that "you can tell whether the stars are coming at you or going away from you." Oh, that's all right then. What a terrifying thought that they might be coming towards us. Then another voice came in:
"We need some further phenomenon that is going to explain all that we have."
And it was at this point that Melvyn Bragg - whom I admire immensely for his ability to chair a discussion such as this in such a way that he appears to follow it - suggested that God might be there somewhere. He didn't do it as baldly as that, but via Arthur Koestler, as befits a literary man. The scientists laughed agreeably. By this time they were on to quarks - the building blocks of all that we know. There are six in all, in three generations. By this time I was severely fuddled, losing the thread briefly as I clutched at the idea of "a kaon with a very strange quark"(I had to look up "kaon" to get the spelling; this is steam radio I'm dealing with), but they were back to anti-matter by the time I recovered. Apparently they have to keep anti-matter in magnetic bottles. Why? Because it destroys matter. You can't just whack it into a Thermos. But it has its uses - in a pet scanner, apparently. A touching vision of all this wonderful science being used to treat a poorly cat was soon dispelled. It's a PET scanner.

So yes, over breakfast I learned some new stuff. That quark isn't just cheese and that it's much easier to believe in God than in the scientific explanation of the universe. Perhaps that's why one scientist's remark stuck cheerily in my mind:
"Cosmologists tend to get quite biblical discussing this."
And well they might. Amen.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Small is ...

There is a tendency among Scottish Episcopalians to comfort themselves with the mantra 'Small is beautiful'. Most of us live lives of quiet desperation in decaying Victorian buildings with damp walls and leaking roofs which the congregation is too small to warm with the press of bodies on a Sunday. So we remind ourselves of the remark made by a now departed bishop that when Our Lord said that he would be in the midst 'when two or three were gathered together' he had in mind an optimum number, and reflect that nowadays if people put themselves through all this then at least they must be sincere. But is there more to church life in miniature than merely keeping warm and dry?

Well of course there is. The heart-stopping beauty of a summer evening Eucharist when the birdsong drifts on the air and there is a real sense that everyone present is as one; the waiting silence of a dark Advent afternoon ... these are things which keep us going. But there are also difficulties in belonging to such a small family. There's nowhere else to go, for a start, if family life becomes stressful - unless you're in a city, you have to drive for an hour to find another church. If someone leaves, or dies, or simply becomes disaffected and starts drifting, it leaves a huge gap. If the only tenor decides not to appear, there's no harmony, and if the organist takes a day off the CD player is a focus for girning. And if new people arrive - if - the effect can be disproportionately great, for good or bad. And that's only in the congregation - but presumably any congregation has to shake down with new clergy, so I'm not even going there.

And when you know that your days are numbered, financially, and that your diocese is proportionately tiny also, you start wondering. The discerning among you might notice that I've not mentioned God at all in all this. I have a feeling that this is par for the course. When people become obsessed with the mechanics of the worshipping community, God tends to take a back seat. And that's not a good thing. At all.