Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cleaning up the past

I've been indulging in a spot of heavy cleaning. Not, you understand, your regular housework, that being the preserve of Mr B, but the creative, nostalgic kind brought on by the need to clean up the chair in which one's granddaughter has been eating this past week. The chair in question is one of four kitchen chairs which belonged to my parents - and if you look carefully at the blue label in the second photo, you will see that they were made by Ercol. (I should admit now that the chalk scribbling on the label was done by me, aged, I imagine, about three.)

As my parents were married before the World War 2, I think of the chairs as being bought in the late '30s. I first remember them in the kitchen of a top flat in Novar Drive, Hyndland, where they sat round the square kitchen table next to the range. Until we left that flat in 1955 the range was in daily use - it heated the kitchen and the water, though I don't think my mother used it for cooking unless there was a power cut. In these days the coal lived in a bunker in the kitchen, so every time coal was delivered the dust would go everywhere. Notwithstanding this grime, it was on one of these chairs that a nurse sat to hold me as I was anaesthetised prior to having my tonsils removed; this operation took place on the kitchen table and I survived.

Because, presumably, both chairs and table were robust and not easily damaged, I played on and under them all through childhood. They were used as steps or climbing aids and stood in for the parts of an imaginary boat/spaceship/house. I don't think they were ever really cleaned other than by the swift removal of dust - unless the tonsil job brought on something more serious. The woodwork in the room was a deeply utilitarian green, and I found a small splodge of this paint on the seat today, along with a smear of the pale grey paint from its next home, also heated by solid fuel.

I keep going on about the coal because today's labours produced a soupy sludge of years of coal dust, soot and very, very old polish. If you look closely at the first photo, you can see the darker colour at the foot of the spars and on the legs - I really needed to be in a sunny garden with some sandpaper to do the best job. As it was, it took a great deal of effort with wood shampoo, an old pot scourer and some beeswax polish. Perhaps one day I'll take all four of them outside and give them a real going over.

It's funny how we can go into paroxysms if someone scratches a piece of furniture we've just bought, though - I realised today that I don't give a fig for the marks on these chairs. Maybe, of course, it's because I was originally responsible for them.

Try as I will, I cannot get this post to look right. That dangling "I've"... I give up. Life's too short.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Silly Steps

Well, that was silly. Yet another "creative" version of Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. Not even the presence of the lovely Rupert Penry-Jones could save it from idiocy as fleetingly familiar moments morphed into something quite different and the woman who has been an obligatory part of the action since the Robert Donat movie assumed more roles than a shape-shifter.

I recall a fourteen-year-old Foundation pupil who had sat silent as I read the book with his class - actually, I read it to the class as they sat with the books in front of them - telling me: "Miss, that was the best book I ever read!" And yet each adaptation I've seen takes snippets of the original and stitches them together into a barely comprehensible and totally uninvolving whole. I dream of Buchan's story, complete with the Bald Archeologist and the Spectacled Roadman and the Literary Innkeeper, presented as a serial over ten weeks, each chapter having an episode to itself and ending on a cliffhanger, with the wonderfully tense drama of the London meeting followed by the incongruous confrontation in the seaside villa forming the final two episodes. No women, no love interest, no submarines. Just a rattling good yarn.

I wouldn't even allow them to take out some of the worst linguistic excesses in the opening two chapters in the interests of political correctness - think Merchant of Venice and leave it all. It'd work. But I bet it'll just have to stay in my head - and Buchan's book.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

First sight ...

First sight of the presents
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
As Boxing Day slides into darkness, I realise that the gloom I used to feel with the passing of the Christmas period is gone. I wonder if it was inextricably linked to the need to work again in January? Or to an attachment to the excitement of Christmasses of childhood? Or is it that nowadays I feel more excited by the season of Advent, to which the celebration of Christmas is the culmination?

However, I recognise in the picture accompanying this post that the moment shown here is a special one. We've been to church - not only at midnight, but again in the morning. We've had coffee. The house is still tidy and the parcels sit neatly and invitingly under the tree. The turkey is cooking and the champagne is in the fridge and everyone is cheerfully expectant.

It is this moment that I have always looked back at with huge pleasure when I think of family celebrations. This is not a moment when I'm thinking of the Incarnation; this is a moment when life and God and belief are, for me, one; when I am wholly focussed on something lovely - the joy of giving and of seeing the wide-eyed expectancy on a child's face, even if the child in question really hasn't a clue what is going on. It is enough for her to be surrounded by people who are happy in each other's company and delighting in her.

I've just read a post on a church chat group which suggests that the true celebration of Christmas owes nothing to the season or the accoutrements we have accumulated. Of course I know that. But I would counter that if the God I know, the God who was content to be born as a child into this world, is not present in this moment, then I have been mistaken in my Advent hope.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Of stables and camels and life-saving surgery

Camel's eye view..
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I always associated churchy women with "doing the flowers" - and in my non-church days I vowed I would never be a churchy woman. There's an irony there, but I still don't "do" flowers. In fact, so far am I from this activity that when lovely people gave me flowers when I was ill on one occasion, my heart sank at the thought of having to disport them suitably in a pleasing receptacle.

However, Christmas allows for more varied decorating options. You've already noted the How To Make an Advent Wreath post, but have yet to learn of the possibilities of setting up the stable and its associated figures, one of which you can see in the foreground of this photo. The following should give you an idea:

A couple of days before the decorating is to occur, we ascertain from an animal-friendly member of the flock that we will have access to some hay: straw is rejected as being somewhat coarse. When we arrive at the church fifteen minutes late, we discover not only the hay but a custom-made cover for the tatty card tables on which will repose our tableau, and sigh with relief that we will no longer have to wrestle with the unwieldy brocade curtains which at one time, long, long ago, used to hang behind the altar. We ascend the tower, avoiding breaking a limb by skiting on the wet stairs; it has been seasonably wet and the tower is dripping with water. There, in the ringing chamber, there is a large wooden chest - large enough for a sizeable body, should anyone need to dispose of one. We fling back the lid and reveal the bubble-wrapped figures for Christmas and Easter. We begin to rummage.

There is confusion at first. Is the blue-clad old gent Joseph? No; he's St Peter, running at Easter. Put him back. Joseph is splendid in purple and an acid yellow, and is considerably younger. We abandon the Epiphany Mary in the search for the kneeling one - we shall regret not having the former to hand in a couple of weeks. The Wise Men are located, including the wonderfully Oriental-looking one. I recall how, some 30 years ago, an American lady called Verna who had done a course in cake decoration took all the figures away and repainted them in vivid colours; she insisted on giving Mary a wedding ring and somehow we've never got round to changing anything since.

The youngest shepherd boy has lost his head. Literally - we find it reposing in his bubble wrap, despite which protection all the plaster figures feel slightly soggy. Someone has brought a glue gun - the amazing Sharon who thinks of everything - and Di soon performs surgery. The shepherd boy looks just a little like Frankenstein's monster, but the scar won't show by candlelight.

The stable, also soggy, fits together first go and soon we have the donkey and the cow peering in and the figures in place. A candle which seems unlikely to ignite the hay is located and inserted in front of the crib. It is time to deal with the Magi. They are disported around the rim of the pulpit, which this year we have made more picturesque by totally removing the lectern. Some argument ensues as to whether they should be facing the star - a wonderfully vulgar illuminated job which hangs on a nail on the pulpit door and is connected to the same set of electric adaptors as the organist. We decide that one camel should have its backside facing the congregation, but that perhaps the kneeling figure should not go immediately behind it.

A couple of rhododendron branches stuck, appropriately, in a lump of Oasis and mounted on a tower of table and stool create a suitably palm-tree-esque backdrop and we are finished. There is always the danger that over-enthusiastic thunderings on the organ might bring the entire procession down on the organist's head, but it hasn't happened yet. Below us, the work continues - you can just make out in the photo the blur of movement that is the Rector - but our particular bit of creation is over.

And in case you wondered: no-one has preached from the pulpit in this century, thereby leaving it free for much more entertaining use.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New poem and procrastination

I had intended blogging about the activities of the day, but it has suddenly become rather late for all but bed, so I shall content myself with flagging up a new poem at frankenstina.

I realise that though it was written absolutely as a result of my first meeting with my new grandson, it could have another association entirely in keeping with the season. And I may return to church activities tomorrow - if my duties as domestic goddess cum perfect grandma let me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Alternative Christmas?

I've been reading Kimberly's take on how ordination changes, among other things, the whole business of Christmas for the ordained. But I'd already been thinking along these lines, for it is not only the ordained who have to fit in the baking, the tree-decoration, the card-writing around other, more pressing activities. In fact, I must have been barely an adult when a totally carefree approach to the season vanished, to be replaced by the situation on which I touched in yesterday's post.

About ten years before I became involved with the church, I started singing in choirs which "did" Christmas. I met Mr B while singing in an a cappella octet which "did", inter alia, Christmas. Christmas occurs in - you've got it - midwinter. The height of the colds/flu/lost voice/wvv season. Suddenly a night out on the town - for in these days I lived in Glasgow - was a dangerous pastime. Who knows what bugs you might meet in a steamy pub? And if you had a duty to the other singers not to let them down ... you get the picture.

And then you find yourself, a singer who likes singing in small groups, married to a singer who is also a church organist. You bear children - and they become choristers. So as well as singing and cooking and being Santa you also end up laundering surplices and ironing ruffs while the organist is away catching his death in the freezing church as he practises or wrestling over an order of service with the incumbent of the day - and, dear reader, we have seen a few of them in our time. The angst is commensurably greater, though you are too busy actually to notice till it's all over.

I've just been chatting to one of our choir from yesterday who is going to her family for Chrismas Day. She won't be cooking, and her daughter-in-law will be doing the domestics. I wondered, fleetingly, if this would ever be our lot. But even as I wondered I knew the answer. For there is a wonderful reward in this church musician caper, in doing your very best to create something beautiful to enhance worship. I don't know what kind of shelf life we have, as singers, but I know full well that my life as Temporary Domestic Goddess will be hugely enriched by the contrast with what has gone before, and right now I can't imagine removing the organist from his home patch over Christmas.

Tomorrow I shall doubtless be laying hay in the manger and rescuing the Holy Family from the big chest in the damp tower, but before that - like now, this minute - I must ice my Christmas cake.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Music, words and candlelight.

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
In a small, damp, chilly church at the foot of the glen, pestered for a spell by the noise of motor-bikes (until two of the congregation asked the bikers to desist), a bit of a miracle happened this afternoon. When you arrive for the Advent carol service and the vestry corridor is slippy with the rainwater dripping from the tower and your only bass has succumbed to a bug which has rendered him voiceless and the tenor can only wonder if his voice will survive the afternoon, you might be forgiven a moment's doubt. But as the people arrived, as the candles were lit, as the organ played the Liszt/Arcadelt Ave Maria ... it began. The magic. The anticipation that no setbacks could dampen.

As one of the singers, I tend to have a partial take on these events, in more than one sense of the word. I am quite capable of feeling satisfied if I sang well - never mind the rest. But today wasn't like that. As Mr B (at once the bass and the organist) was now behind the organ accompanying many of the pieces he would have sung in, we had to concentrate like crazy on his more distant conducting - but that didn't diminish anything. Maybe the heightened tension contributed to the atmosphere.

But a huge part of the magic came from the words today. For the first time, all the readings other than scripture came from members of the two congregations, four of us, women, writing about the experience of birth. As one of the writers, I have to say we were well served by some wonderful readers, and as a listener who had to sing immediately after these readings I must add that it was so emotional - I was so emotional - that singing seemed well nigh impossible.

But sing we did, and the effect of the whole was powerful and wonderful. And I can do no other than illustrate this post with two of Kimberly's candles - for if anyone does candles, it's Kimberly. Before we began this day, I was thinking about the intensity of preparation and the way it takes over our lives to the exclusion of much that most other people see as "normal" for this time of year. We haven't been for a night out, we barely have time to read a paper, it seems. And there is quite a degree of tension, and I catch myself wondering what it'd be like not to sing, not to be so involved. And tonight I know. It'd be ... nothing like this. And I wouldn't feel the way I do right now: intensely grateful, and exhilarated beyond reason.

Oh - and totally exhausted. Did I mention that?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Of lethal decorations and other matters

"Tis done. This photo is one for the archives, showing as it does our antique Pifco lights, still shining after 38 years. I note from the paper label still attached to the wire that they are "Empire made" - did we still have an empire in 1970? And even better: I found one last replacement bulb in the box, so we are not yet at the last gasp.

If you look closely, you will also see a small glass bauble shaped roughly - very roughly - like a pineapple. I have carefully bestowed this and the other five glass baubles high enough to be well out of the reach of any maurauding 16-month-old; all she will be able to reach are the ones made of what feels like outsize ping-pong balls. In fact, my tree looks almost exactly the same as it has done ever since 1970: the tree variety occasionally differs, and this is a 6 foot rather than a 5 foot one, but give or take a few new baubles I cannot resist getting out the wee santa on a cane horse (given to the kids, I believe, in the early 80s) and the wee silver bells which really ring ....

Enough already. It's up and decorated and there's water in the stand and the tinsel doesn't look like string on a parcel. I have my standards. Fussy? Never.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Randomly festive thoughts

Still beset by various carolling earworms, it came to me that I should try to find out what Christmas carol would be the desert island choice of the blethers readership. If you're still reading other people's blogs rather than trying to get your cards sent or your pressies wrapped, please tell.

On a tenuously related tack, I am happy to announce that my 38-year-old fairy lights (Pifco, little coloured bells, no flashing) lit up beautifully in their box today when we got them down from the loft. I thought a test advisable before Woolworths empties its shelves altogether. Spare bulbs are no longer sold, and I've used the last of the batch I bought maybe ten years ago. The lights are probably wildly unsafe and meet no modern criteria, but I like to hope they will see me out (not in a lethal way, you understand)

And finally, by way of greeting and to waste even more of your precious time, a festive link for you all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Earworms and emotion

This is the season when all good choristers tend to go around singing snippets of carols – evidence of the earworms with which they are afflicted. Sometimes the words are obviously misremembered, random juxtaposing of mismatched lines, tum-ti-tums with mangers and oxen, la-lahs with virgins and angels. I have just returned from Somerfields, where I startled an elderly man over the 3 for the price of 2 cheeses by singing “here’s no ox about thy bed” quite audibly but unprepared by any preliminary humming. He moved swiftly off, without any cheese.

But I’m interested in the sudden surge of emotion which afflicts me these days as I sing. Partly, of course, it’s the new grandson: too many carols have me seeing his face and feeling him warm in my arms. But I have a feeling that it’s also being older. Rather than the detached coolness with which I used to sing – not only carols, but at the funerals of friends – I find myself on the verge of cracking inconveniently as I sing “hush my darling” in the new arrangement of Watts’ Cradle Song (by Mr B – glorious). It is especially inconvenient as I’m singing the melody with one other alto – everyone else is singing Oooooo - and if I do crack up, it’ll be horribly noticeable.

So: task of the week. Sing tenderly and beautifully, but don’t listen to the words. And don’t, please don’t, think of grandchildren.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Old-fashioned friendship

More cards today. And of course a mountain of them when we arrived home the other night after our trip south. I find myself as always looking at the handwritten envelopes and recognising the writing - for not many of our friends have done as I have in the past few years and used a database and labels. Some of these friends I haven't seen for at least 35 years, and it amuses me to picture them still writing as they did all those years ago. One in particular sat next to me in several classes at school and I used to despair at the unvarying neatness of her writing under pressure: it is unvarying still. I can't imagine how she looks now; we don't exchange photos and we're not connected online, but this annual renewing of friendship still has the power to please.

I sometimes feel a pang of guilt at the ease of using the printed labels, but reassure myself with the thought that I write the cards and think of the recipient and scribble in a word or two of friend-specific news or comment. It's as if they exist in a different plane from the people I know in this medium, the ones to whom I shall Tweet my seasonal wishes and who make Santa hats for my avatar to wear, the ones whose every move is familiar to me but who only know me as Mrs B.

I shall be posting on love blooms bright again tomorrow; there's some more lovely stuff there to meditate on in a quiet moment.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hic bene dormitur

Sleeping on Grandma. Again.
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
It's quite a thing, this grandmothering. Humbling, really. You think you've lived all these years, acquired all these skills - sure-footed syntax, the ability to read Latin, to sing in tune, to sight-read music - you've taught hundreds of weans and survived to tell the tale, you write poetry and learned desk-top publishing skills and even manage to keep a blog in your declining years - and what does your newest arrival appreciate most? You got it. I'm a comfy place to fall asleep.

As you can see, I have a gorgeous grandson who still sleeps a lot - though he's apparently quite lively at 3am and I've seen him wide-eyed in the mornings. It was hard to leave him and fly home yesterday; I have to learn to balance the different benefits of a three-day stay (which includes sitting with a sleeping baby to my heart's content) against the daytime visit to my within-reach-for-a-day-trip granddaughter.

I almost forgot one unlooked-for side-effect for visiting-granny-in-the-inglenook*: I've seen more of Jeremy Clarkson on the telly in the past three days than I've ever watched in my entire life. Beat that.

*This is a picturesque exaggeration. The telly's in the inglenook.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


When I was small - three or threabouts - I was devoted to a pair of blue dungarees and to the idea of "mending things". My mother dreamed of me as the first female mechanic - until I turned into an arty-farty type who wrote poems and fancied muscians.

So I'm fascinated with the results of typing the url of both this blog and my poetry blog into Typealizer - a link I found on Kenny's blog

I turned out to be the mechanic. "The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment, are masters of responding spontaneously to challenges that arise . They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts. The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters."

I have to admit that the demands of this moment meant that I felt obliged to edit the above quote, not for content but for punctuation, which in the original was lamentable. I'm not sure that I see myself entirely in the description offered, but I was interested that the two blogs produced the same ISTP type. I was more interested in the diagrams showing the different areas of brain activity which, according to the analysis, would be involved in writing each blog. In the clips above, the first diagram is the one for blethers, while the second is for the poetry over at frankenstina.

And it's odd that blethers shows no sign of spirituality, rhythm and harmony. Maybe I should be looking for a change of lifestyle - anyone seen my spanner?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Try this

Before I head off to The Smoke to see that my new grandson is treating his parents ok, I'd better leave my readers with a wee something on which to waste their time when they should be preparing their souls (if they observe Advent) or their festive food (if their stomach is more important). I had this link from Lay Clerk, whose score at this colour-sorting exercise, I'm happy to say, I beat.*

Smug? Moi?

Be warned, however: it gives you a dreadful feeling of skelly eyes.

*I scored 15. The lower the better.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Of Malthus, and others.

What an obscenity it is that so many people should be dying of hunger in the Horn of Africa. How nonsensical that cholera should be rife in Zimbabwe. What a contrast with the lives of comfort and ease that we live. As we drove home tonight, the profound darkness of the hills pressing around the narrow ribbon of road from Colintraive to Dunoon, I was reflecting on the strands of transport and amenity that contribute to our lives here - not lives of overt splendour and extravagance, but unimaginably richer than that lived by thousands who also inhabit the 21st century.

And how unequipped most of us are to deal with a more basic existence! With gas fires blocking chimneys and hearths, electric ovens susceptible to power failure, a freezer full of food that would last only hours before spoiling ... what would we do if our complex world crumbled?

I can't help thinking of the demands we in the West make on the world, and of the Malthusian checks of old. Not a comfortable thought for a cold night.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Blooming elsewhere

I've been posting over at Love Blooms Bright today, on the advent blog begun last year to which a group of bloggers in the Episcopal church contribute. You should take a look - not just because I've posted there, natch, but because it contains a wealth of thought-provoking, meditation-enhancing material, as well as some that can only be described as pure delight.

Go and see!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A poem for a baby

There's a new poem over at frankenstina - and a picture of my lovely grandson. This is the poem I wrote while, all unknown to me, he was about to come into the world, so I feel rather special about it.

Alan, on the other hand, is completely special.


I've been diverted from onerous minute-writing (though made more accurate by our new Edirol recorder) by a new form of word-smithing: The Fib. Look here for the lowdown; I am indebted to Jim at Living Wittily for the link.

Like a haiku, only different, this relies on a mathematical sequence of the number of syllables in each line, in which each line's syllables number the sum of the previous two lines. Jim explains it clearly. And, having had some interesting forays down the hill yesterday and before dawn this morning (the dawning realisation that the gritter is just starting its rounds when you're already committed to a black slope brings a pang of panic) I felt this was an appropriate first try:

as it lies
deceptively there
on the supposedly gritted
pavement where old ladies pirouette in lethal dance.

I could have gone on...but mercifully the gas man arrived. It was fun while it lasted.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent obsessions

I've been thinking about The Advent Prose today. Actually, I've been obsessed with the images in it since yesterday, when it was the first piece sung at the Eucharist, reinforced by the OT lesson for the day. Recently I've grown impatient with archaic language in worship, but the imagery of "we all do fade as a leaf" and "our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away" is compelling stuff. And I realised in conversation that the very familiarity of the words in their plainsong setting removes the sense of the archaic, and that I am free to take them to myself.

As a result, I think I've written my first post for Love Blooms Bright, the Advent blog. It will appear on Sunday, but in the meantime I commend the blog to you for a fascinating series of meditations and insights into the season of Advent. And I shall try not to rant about not anticipating Christmas - except to say that it is much more meaningful to keep Advent first!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

We are a grandmother, again

All of 15 months ago I wrote that I was quoting the Blessed Margaret for the first and last time, but here we go again. We are, for the second time, a grandmother. Neil and Mary's baby boy, Alan John McIntosh, was born about 24 hours ago in London, and he's a big boy, in the fine tradition of his father's generation of McIntosh babies.

Right now, I'm at the stage of feeling as if I'd given birth myself (no: that's hyperbole - but allow me a bit of overstatement, won't you). After Neil's call at nearly midnight (I was catching up on blog stats at the time) we wet Alan's head with a fine malt and headed, burbling, bedwards. At 3am I was up checking Flickr for the first photo (yes - it was there) and at 7am I was making bread after 4 hours of exhaustingly dream-filled sleep. This business of new life arriving really digs into the psyche, especially when the new life is 25% your own genes.

And the amazing thing for me is that yesterday, with no knowledge of the ongoing labour (some people keep their cards very close to their chests!) I wrote a poem called Mary's baby. Ok, there are seasonal impulses at play here - but I think it's quite a coincidence. At the moment, the poem is maturing and there are no photos for public consumption - but watch this space.

And Alan has his own Twitter account already!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Church, Jim, but ...

The church in this photo (for which I'm grateful to rickie22) is one with which I was very familiar in my youth. My school, Hillhead, was just along that road to the left of the picture, and we went there for end-of-term services. I waited endlessly for the number 10 bus just where this photo was taken, and I went to Glasgow University, whose campus surrounds this site. I actually quite enjoyed my school services, I have to say, as the then minister, Stewart McWilliam, was an impressive and interesting preacher, and with the company of my pals I was spared much of what at the time "church" meant to me.

Because I never did "join" the presbyterian church of my upbringing. If I went, it was usually under duress, and I was oppressed by the overpowering ambience of good works, respectability and Sunday hats. The singing would be lusty but unappealing, the diction of the clergy portentous and mannered ("God" was often "Gud"), and well-meaning adolescents were always trying to get me to come to youth group and play ping-pong. It wasn't that I had no awareness of God - it was just that I didn't ever have it in this setting, and I wanted no part of it.

And I thought for a long time that the extraordinary experiences which led me to confirmation in the Episcopal church at the age of 28 were part and parcel of Scottish Episcopalianism. The minority sport aspect of worshipping in the diocese of Argyll lent a sense of precariousness which suited me just fine. But I was misled.There are, it seems, plenty of churches where the most important event seems to be the annual sale of work, the most noteworthy task the baking of a great cake. And yes, people seem to be cheerfully busy with such activities and happy to write about them year in, year out. They listen dutifully to music good, bad and indifferent, and they listen to the priest and go home again. Maybe they even disagree - politely or rancorously - and moan now and again about this or that.

So with a sort of official review approaching my home parish, I'm happy to report that church doesn't feel like any of that. We may have a tiny congregation, we may wish we had some money to Do Something About The Tower - but we seem to be alive, in an interesting and challenging fashion which has us reading and studying and talking and singing - not in a choir, but all together. We seem to be pushing into a more vital sense of what being church is all about. And we don't actually seem to fit into any category.

And all that suits me just fine.

Note: this post and the photo illustrating it has had an interesting journey which illustrates the different attitudes of the people who share their photos on flickr. I'm happy to say that after an unpleasantly acrimonious response from one photographer I have heard from another who shares my attitude - and his photos!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bleak indeed - Darke too.

I was aware of the BBC Music Magazine's poll of the nation's favourite carols - I've just found the online equivalent here - and was happy to learn that the top choice was Harold Darke's setting of Christina Rosetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter". You can hear this version here.

However, when Radio Scotland got their mitts on the story this morning, they got it all wrong. For start, they did their usual hamfisted music clips thing before the report, so that the first thing we heard was the other well-known setting by Holst, which (a) is not the nation's favourite and (b) which I associate with the mournful droning of a sleepy congregation at midnight. Their guest musician pointed out feebly that there were two settings of the words, but either hadn't clocked the poll result or was too chicken to rage at his hosts. I'd have appreciated a John Cleese-type rant: Wrong! wrong! hopelessly wrong! - that kind of thing.

I want to think that we have decent media in Scotland and that even though the barren wastes of non-Anglican sensibilities are bound to have their effect there will be bastions of taste and decent research, but I keep being reminded of how difficult it is. And it was an interesting experience to go trawling for audio links this morning - there are some terrible performances out there. I have, however, found a decent one (in tune, couple of pleasing soloists) - so if you don't know what I'm talking about, have a listen. Then you can go and vote - use this site and have your say.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Surviving Survivors

I wasn't sure that I wanted to watch Survivors on BBC last night. I was riveted to the original 1975 series - or two series, I recall, which ran till 1977 - and had recently had the joy of revisiting it on DVD. To be sure, the characters in the original now seem amazingly posh, with the occasional roughneck showing up as socially unequal, perhaps possessed of some helpful attribute but never to become a member of the inner circle, and the leading female, Abby Grant (Caroline Seymour) had the kind of cut glass accent rarely heard these days outside the Queen's Christmas broadcast, but there was a terrifying bleakness about the comfortably rural isolation of her home as she began to realise the extent of the plague sweeping the country. And I remember clearly wondering how she had the hot water in which she showered after her recovery - but at the same time I approved of the gesture which led her to cut off her long hair and appear ready for action; the resulting crop was far too elegant to be the result of an amateur hacking with scissors but the symbolism was potent.

But I did watch last night's first episode of the remake, and I enjoyed it, though it didn't really feel like the same show. The frenzied activity of the outbreak of "flu" contrasted with the distancing of much of the original, maybe in a true reflection of our interconnectedness these days (no-one Twittering about it, though - that would've been something), and the ethnic mix of the survivors so far is an obvious nod to our multi-racial present. And it wasn't long before all modern communications were wiped out anyway - taking us back to the premises of the original series. I'll be interested to see if a vicar makes himself known to all by turning round his collar as happened the first time - maybe a step too irrelevant these days?

Dramatisations apart, I was aware this time round of how much more likely the scenario felt. In the 70s, we'd just come through the 3-day week and the telly going off air at 10pm, so we were used to the idea that candles really were a poor substitute and that Things Could Go Wrong, but now, what with bird flu and such nasties, we seem to be more aware of the potential for an unknown virus to arrive at Heathrow, and this lends an edge to the drama. I found the final broadcast by the Home Secretary as the epidemic took hold strangely moving, pointing up the inability of government to do anything at all. And the news that flu jabs were merely given to stop panic rang horribly true.

I'm looking forward to the next episode (must check when it is) and then I'm going back to the DVDs. And then I'm going to indulge in some serious hypochondria ... have I got swollen glands?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The feast of Christ the King ...

Having discovered at the end of a long day yesterday that it was my turn to do the intercessions at church this morning, I found myself mulling over the implications of the feast of Christ the King. I could see the point of celebrating kingship before returning to the dark wait for the newborn Christ, but I also felt a great sense of the relentless move of the seasons, the turning of the year in the dark of winter - and an awareness of the repeated new chance to make the world a better place.

It's as well we have that chance, even though we seem to do little to change things. I picture George Bush working like crazy to overturn environmental protection laws so that oil companies and others can exploit the virgin lands of American national parks, and I wonder how I feel about Donald Trump rampaging over the wild beaches north of Aberdeen. (No I don't. I know how I feel - but I'm not looking for a job there). I wonder if GWB is thinking of making friends with the Mammon of Unrighteousness so that he'll be well placed when he's out of a job, and I feel helpless.

But then I look ahead to the waiting and the anticipation and the new life in the darkness and the paradox of the king who will be reborn as an infant and I know that we are given a new chance to attune our lives to the power of love and that everything is possible.

And I smile again at the coincidence of thought between preacher and intercessor today. All is possible.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Well, it was worth it. The running about, the phone calls, the panic over whether or not we could reheat the sticky Wassail Cup in an urn - all forgotten in the triumph of a full house (or at least a full church) and a riveting performance from our visiting Russian choir.

The Choir's name Voskresenije is Russian for "Resurrection".
The choir was formed in 1993 and all the members are present or past students at St Petersburg Conservatoire of Music. It occurred to me that perhaps an element of resurrection is present in the choir each time it returns with new, younger members, although Anatoly Artomonov, one of only 3 basso profundos in St Petersburg, is a welcome constant. (Last night he was singing low A - two octaves + two tones below Middle C, for those who know of such things)

The conductor, Jurij Maruk, has led the Novosibirsk Chamber Choir, the Wladimir Minin Choir in Moscow, the Marininski Theatre Sacred Music Choir and the St Petersburg Radio and Television Choir. He too has been on every visit to Dunoon - this was his 7th. The programme this year consisted of many items new to the audience - and they lapped it up. The enhanced socialising effect of the warm cider cup had several of the audience wondering why they'd never made it to Holy Trinity before, and more than one remark was heard to the effect that this was a "great tradition".

All of which leaves me with the realisation that I've done seven of these events already. I was positively youthful when it all began, you know...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Away and wassail yourself...

The life of an impresario has its strange turns. The Russian choir, Voskresenije, is returning to Dunoon this evening, and despite the acquisition of an army of helpers, I still feel responsible for their arrival, the audience numbers, the cash generated by the event and so on. So far so normal. But I spent an unreasonably long time this morning making what we used to know as the Hesperians Wassail Bowl - a sticky, slightly alcoholic concoction which our first choir in Dunoon used to serve up at our carol concerts. Because though I never dreamed of doing refreshments when I had sole responsibility for the arrangements, it seemed a Good Idea when the group considering this year's event ... well, considered it, actually.

It all looked quite jolly, with the lemons strewn over the worktop (right) - but for some reason the large pan, which you can see simmering away in the background, took over an hour to come to the boil. In the end I shoved the glass lid from my wok over it and reached boiling point, by which time I too was at boiling point having run out of runny honey and having to run down the road to procure some. I hope all these different runnings convey an adequate picture of my travails. You can add a visual image of a steaming kitchen and a steaming Mrs B...

Meanwhile, in the background, a phone is ringing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Family and poetry and dark afternoons

There must be something about this time of year - the dark afternoons, the urge to cook in the warm kitchen, to store food like a squirrel - which, more than any other time, arouses memories. Or maybe it's simply that after a very family-orientated weekend and the thought of those dysfunctional families where the result of parental instability is a tortured, dead child I can think of little else but the contrast between my own experience and the bleak awfulness that is the life of far too many people.

Whatever the stimulus, I've written another new poem. The child concerned has no recollection of the moment evoked, which presumably meant far more to me than to him. But isn't that par for the course?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Unlocking the brain

It's interesting what influences can unlock the creative bit of the brain. Having written nothing new for several weeks - and not having the slightest desire to - I found a poem forming as I drove home from Lay Training today. We'd been identifying themes for the church year and discussing with regard to Christmas the themes of birth and the reactions to that experience. Then I read an interview with Seamus Heaney, which reinforced much of my own experience of writing, and this acted as the trigger to go and do something about it. So almost 31 years after the event I found myself writing about the last time I experienced childbirth.

You can see the poem here.

Five things for Stewart

I've been tagged by Stewart to list 5 things which I've always wanted to do. This has stirred up the mud in more than one direction. For one thing, Stewart is a former pupil, so the fact that he bemoans being 36 is deeply depressing and the assertion that he's always wanted to write a book distinctly intriguing (genre, Stewart?) But the biggest dissipation of sludge came when I realised that I've done a goodly number of the things I'd have listed when I was 36; it becomes harder to think of things still beckoning out there. But so far, this is what I've come up with:

1. Climb the Matterhorn. I've twice reached the Hörnli hut but have been obsessed with the mountain since my early teens.
2. See my grandchildren grow up to fulfil their potential (and this includes the one waiting to be born!)
3. Stand on a few more Scottish summits. (This would have been "traverse the Aonach Eagach" twenty-odd years ago, but I've done that now!)
4. Have some of my poetry published by a decent publisher. (Need to be a bit proactive there, I fear)
5. Manage my end so that I don't have to endure a long period of decrepitude/senility/both.

There you go, Stewart. I always was a sucker for allowing a lesson to be derailed down an interesting siding ....

I'm not going to name names to pass this on - but if there are those out there who could be seduced....

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


We've taken, some of us from HT, to meeting in a pub for lunch on Tuesdays. If you've ever been to Holy Trinity Church, you'll know it's a bit out of the way: atmospheric, special, but not exactly in the throbbing heart of Dunoon. So we've decided to meet in this very central hostelry and indulge in Big Talk (as opposed to small talk).

Yesterday nine of us were talking about the things we don't say - the things we hold back for whatever reason. And it emerged that I don't hold back much. I'd already arrived at this as a conclusion, and found that more than one person thought so too. But of course, a discussion like this leaves you thinking about it afterwards, and I was thinking about ... well, me, actually.

Of course teachers hold things back all the time. In all my years in the classroom I managed to suppress the oaths that would drift temptingly to the surface and the anecdotes that though wonderfully illustrative Really Would Not Do. But in another sense a school is a totally liberating place, as I was reminded by visiting my former colleagues just before I went to the pub. There are few topics that won't have an airing in a staffroom, and the banter is rich in many ways. Maybe that has a lasting influence on one's post-work life.

But on the other hand, who actually knows what's going on in anyone's mind? Someone who appears completely free in their discourse may in fact be suppressing all sorts of comments - because they might shock, because to say them might be hurtful or make someone else's life harder. And someone else who seems to be incredibly anally retentive might come out with the apparently naïve comment which can be utterly irritating in its lack of sensitivity.

So? I guess the outcome of all that was that some of our group voiced opinions which they had hitherto suppressed, and we all perhaps felt we knew each other that little bit better. But none of us, I suspect, is without that secret reservoir of unspoken comment. Not even a blogger.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Difficult remembering

Remembrance Sunday has been a difficult day for as long as I can remember. From the day my three-year-old self wondered why my normally cheerful mother would become tearful because of whatever-it-was on the radio, right through to the years when I was stuck in the choir in church resenting the inclusion of the national anthem in the day's hymns, struggling to reconcile the religious faith which had landed me in CND, demonstrating, making speeches and appearing on TV and radio to deplore the deployment of nuclear weapons with the church which at that time seemed to deplore what I was doing... it's not been a day with which I felt safe.

And then I end up in my current role as a member of our lay worship team having to preach a Remembrance Sunday sermon. It was the most difficult of all I've done, mainly because I couldn't actually imagine myself doing it. I didn't know where to start. I think I had visions of people who knew my past standing up and hurling things - no matter what I said.

It didn't happen. I realised as I worked on the sermon that we all move on, and that compassion had replaced anger as the overwhelming emotion of the day. But I wonder if I'd ever have realised that if I hadn't had to stand up in public and address the issue.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Revs and Stripes

This racy little number (the car, silly) could be taken as a metaphor for how some of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church like to see ourselves - small, zippy, a tad unpredictable, liable to be misunderstood (think of being pulled over by ra polis because of your go-faster stripes) and slightly OTT in appearance. I don't know if anyone would actually see all these qualities in the gathering of Lay Readers assembled in Oban today, but it threw up some interesting insights.

The visiting facilitator from The East (cf the magi) might have been forgiven for thinking he'd arrived on another planet. Lay Learning is one thing when coordinated in an urban environment, but you have to think twice about flying someone to a meeting - it has to be seriously worthwhile to have them make the journey. Argyll and The Isles is peopled by small congregations being run by lay people, throwing up questions about Reserved Sacrament use (and the understanding of its use), the best use of the few stipendiary clergy we have and the necessary training for the laity who have the will and the commitment to undertake it. All the problems of running a voluntary organisation surfaced in the discussions, and few of the answers.

I don't have the answers, of course. But there are some things which struck me with some force. The need to remember that for everyone who hated their childhood education and therefore may run a mile from anything which reminds them of it, for everyone who shuns intellectual activity from whatever reason, there is someone who needs to learn, needs to find substance and stimulus in their faith as in the rest of life. We have to feed their minds as well as tend for their souls. It seems to be a feature of church life in some areas just as it often seemed in school that you bend over backwards not to alienate the less academic - but the cerebral must be cared for too. And that means that at some point along the way there has to be professional input.

There was talk of advertising, publicity. I'd say the best advertisement is the result. So if your punters are lit up with the experience of faith and what happens in their church that will be the best advert you could have; if they are gloomy killjoys with a need to address God only in Elizabethan English who endure patiently a weekly service lacking in any spark then most seekers will run a mile. And there are all sorts of beastly puns hovering on the rim of consciousness - puns about revs...

Go-faster stripes, anyone?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama: a personal take

No, I didn't stay up all night. So when someone asks me where I was when Barack Obama was elected, I shall have to admit I was asleep in bed. But this morning it was my waking thought, the first thing I checked before I went off to swim before breakfast. And yes, there was a lightness about this morning, and yes, I shed a tear when I watched his acceptance speech, courtesy of Guardian Unlimited, whose excellent front page I captured (for various reasons) and show above.

I think especially today of the visit I made a couple of years ago to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, and the impact the historic displays and videos had on me in that setting. I think of my friend Ed, who had so much to do with that museum, and the efforts he and Ruth have made over the years to fight bigotry and racism in that part of America. I hope they are rejoicing tonight for prayers answered and hopes realised. And I tip my hat to Joe in Bessemer, who has never faltered in his online support for his new President. Birmingham and Bessemer: two places that few Brits visit, made real by friendship both personal and through the internet.

Here's to you, over there, and to all Americans who rejoice tonight, and here's to some change we can all believe in.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Time to grow up?

Jonathan Ross. Yes, heard of him. He's the guy whose Friday night programme tends to mark the moment when I go off to surf, to post to my blog, to visit Second Life. Not because I find him offensive, as a rule, but because unless he has a luminously interesting guest on his show I find him utterly boring. Not funny, not illuminating, not shocking. Dull. Pointless. Not worth the effort of keeping my eyes open. Not worth - oh, certainly not worth - the silly money he seems to be paid.

And that's the point, surely, behind his suspension over the Andrew Sachs phonecall
What problem, are you asking? Well apparently - according to Vicky Allan in the Sunday Herald - the furore (didn't know there was a furore, but there you are) over his suspension and the damning of Russell Brand shows up a deep divide in British society, between those who think comedy has to be edgy and those who think it has to observe boundaries. Or, as Allan puts it, the Youtube Generation and Daily Mail Morality. What's new? Look at it from a slightly different angle and you see a divide between those who think you can be as rude and insensitive as you like and those who realise that you have to take other people's feelings into account. Or maybe a divide between children and grown-ups?

For most of us who pay licence-fees have grown out of finding humour in the public humiliation of others. Most of us have learned where the boundaries lie and don't find amusement in crossing them. Russell Brand may be young - can't really tell with all that hair, but he seems to have a pretty face - but Ross is surely of an age when he ought to be a grown-up. And me? I'm old enough to be Victoria Meldrew. 

Sunday, November 02, 2008

For Country Parsons everywhere ...

I read this the other day, an extract from A Country Parson by George Herbert. I thought it might be an amusing reminder to the incumbent of our own country charge. Plus ça change .. and all that.

The Country Parson hath a special care of his church that all things there be decent and befitting his Name by which it is called. Therefore first he takes order that all things be in good repair; as walls plastered, windows glazed, floor paved, seats whole, firm and uniform, especially that the pulpit, and desk, and communion table and font be as they ought, for those great duties that are performed in them.

Secondly, that the church be swept and kept clean without dust of cobwebs, and at great festivals strawed and stuck with boughs and perfumed with incense.

Thirdly, that there be fit and proper texts of Scripture everywhere painted, and that all the painting be grave and reverend, not with light colours or foolish antics.

Fourthly, that all the books appointed by authority be there, and those not torn or fouled, but whole and clean and well bound; and that there be a fitting and sightly communion cloth of fine linen, with an handsome and seemly carpet of good and costly stuff or cloth, and all kept sweet and clean in a strong and decent chest with a chalice and cover, and a stoop or flagon; and a basin for alms and offerings, besides which he hath a poor-man’s box conveniently sited to receive the charity of well-minded people, and to lay up treasure for the sick and needy.

And all this he doth, not as out of necessity, but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition and slovenliness.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
There are autumn days so perfect that you are left wondering how you ever felt disgruntled or out of sorts. Today was such a day. But it strikes me that when the world seems a good place I don't feel the urge to write in the same way as when I'm critical or irritated, anxious or stressed. Maybe I need the stimulus of some kind of irritant or upheaval to set the process going.

Or perhaps I have merely been soothed into torpor by spending some time this morning with a cat. Whatever the reason, I can offer only pretty pictures, of the day and of the cat. You can find them all here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Inspiring photos

There's a new idea for story-writing using photos as stimulus. I'm not sure if I quite got the idea, but you can see what I did with it here. The main problem faced by story-writers in the classroom is the horror of the blank page, and having a string of pictures to kick-start the process is one way to overcome that.

Of course, it isn't new. I recall a large-format book with a green cover called, I think, Petites Histoires Illustrées, which was supposed to inspire us with desire to write wee stories in French. However, as the book formed part of our S2 course when our vocabulary was strictly circumscribed, every story seemed to be set on a day when il faisait tres beau temps in which le soleil brillait and les enfants etaient heureuses. I recall being quite underwhelmed, but then writing in a foreign language was never quite my best skill.

And no-one published the results on the Internet, did they?

French, by the way, is green.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Musical interference

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Having become interested once more in the synaesthesia which I apparently have failed to pass on to my offspring, I found myself thinking about the tests I took yesterday. I was in the middle of the first, longest test - the one to establish what colour I associated with each letter of the alphabet - when Mr B came into the room and started listening to orchestral tracks on his computer. At first I paid no attention - if I attended to every piece of music played in this house I'd go off my head - but realised after a minute or so that it was affecting my response times on the button to select the colours on the spectrum. He put on headphones and I reverted to my previous speed.

When it came to seeing the results, there was a selection of letters and numbers where I'd obviously mismatched one out of the three chances I had with each grapheme, resulting in a bigger mark in the RH column (see example in pic) and a higher final score: the only score, in fact, where I was slightly above the 1.0 figure which the testers had set as the level for true synaesthesia.

The possibility that in fact it was the interruption of the orchestral sounds which clouded my inner vision occurred to me when I noted that my lowest score (0.485) indicating the highest degree of synaesthesia came after ascribing colours to the same tune played on several different solo instruments, as well as a rhythmic motif on snare drum and timpani. You can see some of the correlations on the screen shot I've included here (I realised no-one else is allowed to see my results on the link I gave yesterday): I found the piano harder than some of the others because of the complexity of timbre.

Apparently non-synthetes asked to use memory or free association in this test typically score in the region of 2.0. You can see the rest of my test results in a series of screen shots on my flickr set Synaesthesia

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Feeling metaphor

I was sure I'd posted about synaesthesia before - but unless I've done it without tagging, I haven't. At least, Technorati thinks not. So here goes. I don't usually think about being a synaesthete, because I've never known what it was not to see colours, for example, related to numbers, letters or names. I used to argue about it with my mother, who saw different colours - it was normal, wasn't it, if we both did this? So 4 - as a figure or a word - is blue-grey; 5 is yellowy-orange, 9 more yellow. My own first name is pink; John is blue. Wednesday is a blue green, Tuesday pea-green. Get the picture?

And now Mr Heathbank has kindly sent me this link. In it, a neuroscientist links synaesthesia with metaphor, and states that what appears as metaphor is a literal sensory experience for synesthetes. That may explain, he said, why synesthesia is eight times more common among poets, artists and novelists than the general population.

He goes on to link the phenomenon to our ancestors' ability to climb trees - but I suggest you follow the link for that bit. I've just realised that McIntosh is a sort of deep russet colour, and doesn't go at all well with pink.

Update: I just completed a fairly lengthy online test for synaesthesia, which not only confirms my known associations but shows that my strongest manifestation of it is between colour and the sound of various musical instruments - here.
I'd never even thought about that one!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Foreign influences

The photo above is of one of the delights found by trawling through the links on my Site Meter. The poem is one I posted the other day, but so far I haven't a clue what the language is. I realise I could have checked before I started on this, so I may backtrack and find out. It is, however, very interesting to see my own work in what purports to be some eastern European language - though it's probably as inaccurate as most of these online translations are.

I've now visited Google Translations and had a try at translating this page into French (in which I'm sufficiently fluent to have a clue as to what I'm reading). All good, harmless fun. I suppose.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ferry bad show

It's been a grim day. The gales have blown, the rain has fallen in merciless torrents, the drips have breached the cornice in my sitting room. And thinking, as I have been, about Cal Mac ferries, I took a look at the page which gives you status reports on the various routes covered by this redoubtable company. So far, so good. But then I noticed that the status report for the Cumbrae ferry had been filed at midday - yesterday. I've just checked again - it's 5.45pm right now - and it's still as you can see above.

Now, yesterday turned a bit unpleasant as the afternoon wore on, but at 12.42pm it really wasn't bad. So presumably this was put up in anticipation? Ok. But if I were an anxious passenger for Cumbrae and wanted to check today if there was any point in turning up at Largs, what does this tell me? Either I take fright and assume that the island has been cut off for hours or I think this is a company who posts worse case scenario just in case and leaves it, safe in the knowledge that no-one can blame them if their journey fails. And if I get used to paying no attention whatsoever to this site, then what purpose does it serve?

And of course this is all relevant in the light of the debacle on Sunday, when aspiring travellers were put off by the tooth-sucking pessimism of Cal Mac personnel. As I write this, I can see the lights of the Western Ferries disappearing in the murk; the CalMac is just about to leave the pier. And my correspondent in Cumbrae assures me that he has just returned from the mainland.

And he wasn't swimming.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Compost and survive?

I was thinking about recycling this morning. How it has changed our lives! The government have just produced green guidelines, and I was reading them at breakfast, a sort of mental checklist in the background. And this is what floated, like scum, to the surface of my thought ...

Now that the nights are drawing in, the clocks about to change for winter, we live once more in the grimly white light of energy-saving bulbs - and that's after the sad twilight of their warming-up period.

I rush neurotically in and out of the garden to save half-dried sheets as a sudden squall of rain/hail/sleet bursts from what was blue sky only minutes ago. I think of saving electricity by leaving my towels outside, but the rain wins and they come in, wetter than ever, and have to be spun again before I can do anything with them. Black marks for using even more power. [Note: it's really hard to follow this injuction about hanging out washing when you live in the West. It only works for about 5 months of the year, and not in the monsoon season]

There is a permanent pile of discarded paper just inside the back door. If it's windy outside, the paper blows irritatingly into the kitchen when you open the back door. If you're not careful, it can cause a nasty fall as you stand on it and go skiting over the lino. Ditto discarded poly envelopes from the million catalogues we haven't sent for. Plus point: I have become an expert at dismantling tetra paks and other composite packaging. Minus point: This is a skill I never sought.

There is an alarming double row of bottles beside the step into the pantry. If the number rises above ten, you stand the risk of tripping over them as the row infiltrates the already restricted floor space (see remarks about paper, above)

A little bin for peel, dead lettuce leaves, tealeaves and coffee grounds now occupies precious shelf space next to the sink. If it is raining (see above) it is unlikely that anyone will take it to the compost bin because of the long and rather soggy grass en route. When you lift the lid, there is a pungent smell of garlic and festering onion skins.

I have to conclude, I suppose, that there is a virtue in all this suffering and mess. On a day such as today has become, recycling and composting are a bane. But I have a sneaking feeling that the persistent beastliness of our weather has more than a tenuous link to the alternative.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nasturtiums and memories

There's a poem on frankenstina today, accompanied by a wee photo of some nasturtiums in a glass. I took the photo last week, and the companions of these flowers are still blooming in the garden when everything else is looking very draggled. The poem tells the story of their origin, a packet of seeds in a drawer in my mother's house. I read this poem at her funeral a few months after writing it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wind of the Spirit

Almost time -
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I need to blog about yesterday, between recovering and forgetting. Forgive a meander into the vivid present...

WE have just missed the ferry to Cumbrae, but there will be another in half an hour - or so the timetable says. But a fierce south-westerly wind is whipping the grey sea into nasty-looking lumps and gales are forecast. We scurry for the warm steaminess of Nardini's and order coffee. Two espressos later we see the boat round the old pier. Marilyn hasn't finished her Americano but a paper cup is provided and she takes it with her as we bend into the wind. It is raining, horizontally. We are the only passengers apart from a young woman in hiking gear, but we hope many more will follow later in the day.

Why do we want people to visit Cumbrae on such a foul day? Because this weekend has been the first time a Cursillo weekend has been held in the College and Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, and we hope many will come to the final service. ( We also hope some of them might help with the clearing-up, but that is another story)

As it turns out, several people do indeed come, as the photo of the interior of the Cathedral shows. But many more do not - having reached Largs in good time they are put off primarily by the doom-laden prophecies of the Cal Mac crew: "If you want to be sure of getting home tonight, don't cross"; "We can't guarantee that you'll get off the island"; "It's almost high tide".

We who live with the reality of ferries know that Cal Mac crew have two ways of dealing with enquiries. If the person asking for assurance looks anxious or liable to sue, they will give the worst possible scenario with relish. If, however, you ask a question which in Latin would begin with the word "nonne" - as in "You'll keep sailing, won't you?" - they tend to answer cheerily: "Oh, probably" or "You'll be fine." It's all in the psychology of the traveller - the seamen simply don't want to be held to something as unreliable as the weather.

And as it turns out, the closing service is wonderful. Everyone there feels triumphant, special - and by the end of it, no-one really seems to care what the boats are doing. People have ceased to listen to the noise of the slates rippling on the Cathedral roof - or are singing too loudly to hear it. As they gradually drift off and the car-park empties, we notice that no-one is returning: they have caught the ferry and been deposited safely on the mainland again. The Cathedral of The Isles has worked its magic, the Bishop of Argyll has worked his, and the Holy Spirit seems to be everywhere.

We finally leave the island on the 7pm ferry. All the detritus from the weekend is in storage, all the furniture returned to its rightful place. The sea is still racing up the firth, but the tide is again receding - as it does, day in, day out. A lower tide means that there is no problem boarding the ferry. We think sadly of all those who didn't make it, and think of running lessons in dealing with Cal Mac. The rain comes on again as we head for Dunoon, and the Western Ferries travel backwards as is their wont in a gale.

Normal life resumes, but some more people will never be the same again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Moving on ...

I'm glad to be able to link to no. 1 son's blog and rejoice publicly in his impending move to edit the European version of WSJ.com, the online Wall Street Journal. It's been an interesting exercise in self-restraint over the past couple of weeks when we knew but the news hadn't been announced; my tongue is metaphorically shredded by the equally metaphorical biting of same.

It seems to my often vacant and uncomprehending eye an interesting time to be moving into anything to do with money; I assume there is a considerable need for those in the know to keep informed. Cheers anyway, Neil - I'll have a wee glass of bubbly tonight to celebrate the white smoke!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ethnic change?

I was tickled by this headline in today's Guardian:
Anglo-Saxon villain turns European visionary

Who is the villain? None other than Gordon Brown, the PM. A Scot. One of the least Anglo-Saxon-looking men I've seen in a long time. Can it be that he's suddenly wanny us because, as the Guardian puts it, he alone is the only head of government among last night's 27 who understands what he's talking about? The story, by Ian Traynor, even compares him to Wellington.

Good grief.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In tanto discrimine rerum...

I'm indebted to my erudite and witty friend abf for this wonderful link to the New York Times. As one who preceded me through the rigours of Professor Christian J. Fordyce's Latin (or "Humanity") classes at Glasgow, he alone can now furnish me with the forgotten phrase or lost particle - and stands firm with me against the hordes who abuse the apostrophe and split their infinitives.

This piece of writing recalls the days spent wrestling with the weekly Prose Composition exercise, in which we had to render such writers as Macaulay and Churchill into idiomatic Latin. Brush up your amoamasamat and enjoy!

Darn. I've just realised that my link takes you only to the registration for the NYT site. Here is a small sample of what you are missing if you don't register:

Bellum Gallium

Manes Julii Caesaris paucis diebus aderant — “O, most bloody sight!” — cum Ioannes McCainus, mavericus et veteranus captivusque Belli Francoindosinini, et Sara Palina, barracuda borealis, qui sneerare amant Baracum Obamam causa oratorii, pillorant ut demagogi veri, Africanum-Americanum senatorem Terrae Lincolni, ad Republicanas rallias.

Rabidi subcanes candidati, pretendant “no orator as Brutis is,” ut “stir men’s blood” et disturbant mentes populi ad “a sudden flood of mutiny,” ut Wilhelmus Shakespearus scripsit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Singing from the same song sheet?

The first time I realised the place hypocrisy occupied in civilised life was when I was sixteen. For the whole of S4 I had been taught English by a woman I couldn't stand, and when we heard she was to retire at the end of the session I was faced by the demand that I contribute to the pressie my classmates were buying for her. The money wasn't an issue, but I felt revolted by the idea that I should join in. I felt I was being asked to "look like the flower but be the serpent under it" (we'd been studying Macbeth). I felt I was the serpent, and it was a rough couple of weeks.

Fast forward. I am no longer a heathen adolescent, but a mature Christian. (Moving away from Glasgow at a critical juncture provided me overnight with this new identity - no-one here had known me as a serpent). And yes, you try to change things which a new perspective sees as unhelpful, destructive and so on. But as a recent discussion on this blog seems to indicate, I still haven't quite got rid of the fangs. Should I feel bad about this?

One of the perceived features of Christianity which used to put me right off church was the idea that to be a really good person you somehow had to lie down under the slings and arrows and never, ever, retaliate. That was a kind of simplistic view, and I've moved on from there. But does faith in God mean that you have the freedom to ignore the conventions of society, regardless of any effect on other people who may not share your point of view? And does it mean that if someone treats you with lack of courtesy you're supposed not to notice?

I'm still thinking about this, so I'll content myself for now with one small observation: If we have to love our neighbour as ourself, then we need to remember that our neighbour may not be singing from the same songsheet - and may not even have a licence to photocopy it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Death in the afternoon

Yesterday was one of those Argyll days which call out ...walk..walk...walk. So we did - along Loch Striven side. This is a single-track road with occasional passing places, and it doesn't go anywhere. So it's usually quiet, except for the odd driver taking granny for a hurl to look at the view. The view itself is worth a look, having all the elements - water purling down the hillside after the recent heavy rain, a heron flying up the loch, the bracken a wonderful rich brown, rose hips red against the dark of a hill, the low sun slanting through the branches.

Slanting through the branches and illuminating the frenzied scurrying of hundreds of pheasants. As we walked, new crashings in the undergrowth would warn us that yet another family of birds was about to charge out in front of us, or whirr past on creaking wooden wings - for that's what they sound like: wooden toys. Flying seems to be such hard work for them that it's easy to look, to admire the colours, the tail feathers. And, presumably, to take aim and fire. For these pheasants are bred here in huge numbers, fed from blue plastic containers on short legs among the trees, free to rummage in the hedgerows and die in a splatter of feathers when they play chicken on the road. This we know.

But I still wasn't prepared for how I felt yesterday as a procession of black Range Rovers drove us into the ditch. I stood and glared at the grinning, loden-green occupants, and knew why they were there. This was confirmed by the last but one vehicle, an open-backed truck with a frame holding gently waving rows of dead birds. Behind them was what looked like a wartime military lorry in which sat two rows of young boys and girls: beaters, presumably. They looked like conscripts, or maybe refugees.

And I felt that the afternoon had lost some of its light.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hands off!

I've been writing poems for a while now, and it's some years since I was asked to write a hymn to celebrate 150 years of the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae. Writing a hymn is a strange exercise - the kind of poems I normally write do not immediately inspire bursting into song. I chose to do it on the back of a tune I love and which we only sing at Harvest Festivals: Selma is a traditional tune from the island of Arran just across the firth from Cumbrae and in the English Hymnal is used for "Fair waved the golden corn".

Some years later I had it superimposed on a photo by Rob Tennent and made into a postcard which is still sold on the bookstall in the College. Today I heard of how one of these postcards had been sent to a retired cleric who in turn had passed it to someone else who had set it to music for six voices. My informant obviously thought I'd be pleased. But I'm not. Why?

Well, quite simply, I'd have liked to be asked. The back of the card clearly states the authorship of the words - though I note that in my naivete at the time I didn't include a © symbol. But what is it about people - especially, I think, church people - which makes it somehow all right to play around with other people's intellectual property? And the fact that I'd chosen to couple it with a tune and made this clear on the card just makes it more irritating.

I'm now away to do a bit of stable-door-closing, in that I shall post the two card poems written for Cumbrae on frankenstina, where they will at least have the benefit of my Creative Commons licence. And I may yet get round to contacting this composer and point out his lack of courtesy.

Meanwhile, I just hope it's decent music. If not, I shall point that out too.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dust bunny inspector

I'm beset by good links today, and this one is no exception.

Anyone who has visited the damp, chilly, looless edifice that is Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon, can enjoy the prospect of a visit from this "church consultant" - I'd just love to see what he'd have to say about dust bunnies or stuffy odors (sic). I don't think he'd find too many sullen greeters, but anyone who describes himself as "a stickler for lightbulbs and bathrooms" would have a field day as a mystery worshipper in HT.

Bring him on, I say.


I'm indebted to Raspberry Rabbit for sharing this - the precursor of the Reverend I.M.Jolly. Cursillistas of a certain vintage will recall that I have a particular association with this character, and Mrs Heathbank will recognise the inspiration for her own role in a memorable evening.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Well, that was fun! And the view above is one of a few I stopped to take on my drive north yesterday, looking down from the first high point on the road just south of the entrance to Glencoe. Not the kind of view seen on my journey to work when I was teaching, and quite a distraction. Strangely enough, this was the longest journey (and I was right - 21/2 hours to cover 100 miles) I've ever driven alone in the car, and I loved it - even if I had to stop in order to look at the mountains.

The Ministries Reflection Course of which this was the first meeting for a small group involves aspiring Lay Readers, ordinands and others with a call to some kind of ministry in the church in assessing several competencies which TISEC has deemed essential to any minister. Normally a group would cover one such competency per meeting, but because of the difficulties of meeting often we covered two last night: Communicator and Collaborative Worker. I found myself thinking as we followed the suggested guidelines that as well as the basics of sympathetic listening and appropriate register and tone when communicating we ought to be raising awareness of other forms of communication - like this, now. Perhaps I shall suggest an additional session at the end of the course.

I was interested to note how my own past experiences fed into this new role. As an English teacher I seemed to spend years encouraging pupils to take an active and sensitive role in group discussion - and marking them according to Standard Grade GRC: don't think I'd have been too popular had I done this. And Table Leaders in Cursillo weekends are facilitators of a pretty high order, bringing together as they do groups of complete strangers who end up sharing their lives with ease and trust. We tend to compartmentalise skills these days; I have more than once been asked what training I've done for a job like this and know that this meant undertaking a specific course of study.

Maybe people simply don't realise what skills teachers develop as they work. Perhaps if they've never had an adult perspective on what goes on in a school they're stuck with what they knew as pupils - half a century ago. And that brings us round to one of the essentials for Collaborative Workers that we covered last night: appreciating people's gifts. Now, how does that translate back into the classroom?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Distance learning

Heading off later today to do something rather like my old job: encouraging people to think about their competence as communicators. However, these are not school pupils; they are adults involved in Lay Ministry in the SEC, and as such will present an interesting challenge. Most of us think we can communicate just fine, especially if we've gone through tertiary education and spend our lives dealing with the public, but I'll be intrigued to find out how the participants in this group rate themselves.

The other factor which distinguishes this from the old job is the travel involved. School? Leave the house at 8.52 by the car clock, behind the desk by the time the 9am bell goes. Did it for years. Today's gig involves me in a drive of about 21/2 hours (I think - depends on how much I stop), finding a house I've never been to, and an overnight stay. But I'm looking forward to it. Does this mean that I miss the limelight, I wonder?

Or simply that I have a screw loose?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Paddling up the Thames

Just back from London, I crossed the Firth this evening in the Aly Cat, bouncing about in a grey swell as the rain battered the windows. Familiar territory. But yesterday I enjoyed a surreal mix of the familiar and the new, as we sailed on the Waverley from Tilbury to Tower Bridge and back again.

The familiar? The weather for a start: grey and chilly with a hint of rain. The bobble hats and anoraks. The determination on the part of the passengers not to be driven below until hypothermia set in or their hands became too cold to hold the camera. And the ship herself, the varnished wood and gleaming brasswork and the smells of the engine and the accents of the crew. But unfamiliar? The bobble hats were worn by people with London accents, hordes of them, and the bar had children in it and most of the men there were drinking beer, not whisky. The river was the Thames, and instead of the Kyles of Bute we had the spectacle of Tower Bridge being fully opened for us - and all the traffic backed up for miles and the river bank lined with crowds waving and taking photos. It was quite an experience.

The pic shows the tug which turned us just upriver from the bridge, which is just opening for our return journey. As we passed under the towers, we were exhorted to cheer, and the ship's whistle blasted steamily. By the time we had gone back downriver to Tilbury, under the Dartford Bridge (and simultaneously over the tunnel) it was growing dark, though I don't think that was the reason for the mighty thud we gave the clearly disintegrating pier. Maybe the wifie in the yellow jacket who looked as if she should be catching the rope thrown for the deck knew something - but she just stood there as the chorus of jeers sang out from the crowds waiting to disembark.

A great afternoon. Surreal, but great.