Sunday, June 29, 2008

Music hath charms ...

Shall we go out now?
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
It is completely fascinating to watch the development of a young child. Our grandchild, at 10 months, is showing among other things (like... climbing skills, like 'satiable curtiosity*, like ...) an extraordinarily marked reaction to music. We've watched her bopping to Mozart's Turkish Rondo on one of her fave toys, we've seen her move in time to the complex rhythms of her dad's latin american tracks, and she's now completely fascinated by her grandpa's piano-playing, adjusting her rhythmic movements to accommodate quavers or big, important tunes.

This morning we tuned in to the middle of a quiet, still, contemporary setting of the text "Viri Galileai" on the radio. Catriona had been crawling with early-morning energy round the wooden floor, but she immediately stopped, sat stock still, then swayed gently to the flowing movement of the piece. When it drew to its pianissimo conclusion, she breathed deeply and looked up.

It's magic. In fact, I think I need to take up playing my violin again...

*There's a wee literary reference here. Anyone?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pastures new

To the school for lunch on this, the last day of term. Not that "term" has any meaning for one in the state of retired bliss, but today marked the end of an era up the road when Joe Rhodes finally took the advice of his coaevals (moi) and retired from the post of headie. It was a jolly occasion, full of old people (some even older than me and Mr B) enjoying the novelty of meeting up again in an entirely new school. There was much age-and-appearance-related banter before the official part (pictured) when Alastair Stewart put his retiring line-manager (as such people are called these days) through a variant of "Mastermind".

I amused myself during this by observing the assembled company. A former depute had turned up, looking hardly changed from the days when he handed out Please Takes with apparent joy. A certain PT had metamorphosed (it was the specs) into Gok Wan, and a former "bad girl" into a respected and much-loved dinner lady. And it seemed as if most of the company no longer worked in the school - unless I simply assumed that any strangers to me had wandered in off the street.

But I make a serious point here. When someone retires, especially when they retire after being in the same job for a considerable time, it's a big deal. Next session goes on without them, but it's still a big thing for the person retiring. Common decency would suggest that you turn out to wish them well. I couldn't help noticing all the people who for whatever reason had arranged things so that they were not there. (I excuse the staff still returning from foreign parts with a bunch of weans). It seems mean-spirited, somehow, and lacking in imagination, not to attend such a function, and I wonder if some of them will reflect on this when their time comes.

Another thought surfaced as a result of this visit: what criteria are applied when appointing a new headie? What decides who goes on the short list? Is there any point in applying to be head of the school you've been working in - especially in a small town? Does it all come down to how you fill in your application or whether you do a good interview?

And I left, happy never to have applied for anything. Enjoy your retirement, Joe - like us all, you've earned it. But I don't know about that fiddle ....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Out there...

Rain clouds over Kiloran Bay
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
After uploading the last of my photos from last week's holiday I find myself suddenly wanting to be back on Colonsay - a magical scrap of an island, 17 square miles of it, stuck on the edge of the Atlantic. A "thin" place, where anything seems possible, and also a place where I felt we had gone back half a century. There are few cars, only single-track roads, two shops - plus the tiny bookshop on the west coast, with an extraordinary collection of books second-hand and new, and the promise to get you anything you asked for. The Colonsay Hotel is the only place where you can eat in the evening; The Pantry is only open during the day.

There is only one doctor - the one who had to close his surgery to go off on the medi-vac helicopter. It can't be an easy place to live, not with 21st century expectations anyway. But in another sense it felt simple, with fewer choices and limited options. And I felt safe there - even the cows seemed less threatening than I tend to find them! And as this photo shows, much of the rain we are used to in Argyll passes Colonsay by: there are no mountains to force the clouds upwards, so they pass on to dump their load on Mull or Jura. This purple beauty was heading for Mull while we walked on the beach in sunshine.

I think I shall have to go back again...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Yesterday evening, as the rain poured down and the darkness was more Octoberesque than midsummer, we were having a ball in the restored splendours of St Augustine's, Dumbarton. Kenny's anniversary bash was the most wonderful mix: a High Mass (singing everything that moved), Eastward-facing at the high altar (you can see the nave altar in the foreground), clergy everywhere. Fr Dougal twinkle-toed about with the thurible, Kenny sang dead in tune (they don't always, you know - it's interesting when the Sanctus begins in a completely different key from the preface), Fr Alex read the Gospel in his gorgeous dark-brown voice, and Mr B played what Kenny described as the "difficult bits" - the accompaniement to Merbecke - and sang the verses in the Taize psalm. There wasn't a dry eye.

Meanwhile, Mrs Heathbank and I were bashing out the Merbecke with a will - because they don't do the 1970 Liturgy in St Aug's any more, let alone sing Merbecke. This, after all, was a 1970s occasion. We even sang a couple of trad hymns, albeit with a praise band. But never think the evening was staid: during the communion we had a couple of country and western numbers - holy words, but definite C & W. I'm sure the celebrant's shoulders were shaking as he cleared the altar. Maybe that's why high altars are so far from the congregation. And at the end, Kenny seemed to skip from the sanctuary - but maybe he was just catching up with the procession.

It was a great night. There was the usual St Aug's purvey afterwards, including some very pleasant wine in delightfully large glasses, and many old friends to greet. I feel very much at home in St Aug's - the welcome is always warm and affectionate, and I feel like an old friend. Kenny leaped onto a chair, ostensibly to thank everyone but probably to show off his good suit. The noise level was extraordinary and the heat intensified, but no-one was bothering. People were hugging in greeting, hugging in farewell. Magic.

And then we had to dash. It was 9.45 and we had 45 minutes to drive to the last ferry home. Thanks to the sudden incontinence of one of our number, we only just made it: we were grateful to the miscreants who were taking up the attention of the local constabulary (4 cars' worth) on the Erskine Bridge. The ferry hurtled across in half the usual time (last ferries always do) and we were home by 11pm.

It fair took me back, this high mass. This is what drew me into the Episcopal Church just over 30 years ago, and when the liturgy is used absolutely formally with all the dignity and ceremony of the church it still has the power to transport. Last night wasn't just Kenny's celebration, for I was celebrating too. I think we all were.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Midsummer celebration

Last night it never became dark. The photo above was taken at 1.45am, looking north. The last of the sunset was segueing into the first light of dawning and two hours later it was daylight (I was too sleepy to hang out of the window again to take another photo). Tonight it will be dark, as the clouds have sailed in again, but tonight I'm off to celebrate another kind of light. Thirty years ago my pal Kenny was ordained deacon, and we're off to join in the High Mass at St Augustine's, Dumbarton. Should be a joyous occasion - who cares if it rains!

New egg to fry

There's a new micro-story challenge over at Frying an Egg. Get over there and give it a go - you were all wonderful the last time!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Demonstrative church?

While I've been off on an unwired holiday on Colonsay there's been a great conversation over on Kenny's blog about same-sex marriage ceremonies. At least, it was such a ceremony which started the discussion, but having entered it rather late I felt like thinking here as well.

I can see that it seems provocative for a couple of male priests to celebrate just before Lambeth what looks to all intents like a wedding. I can see that there's a good old demo involved in inviting Bishop Gene Robinson to St Mary's Cathedral at the same time as the Lambeth Conference to which he's not invited. I can see why a cool head might suggest that such actions will only serve to drive the wedge further into the riven Anglican Church, and that better progress might be made by a softly, softly approach.

But I see also, and far more clearly, that to pussyfoot around and advocate subtlety can only really be advocated by someone who cares more, perhaps, about the whole than about the parts. Does it not come down to putting the Anglican Communion before common justice? Do we really care about staying in the same tent as people who would deny the humanity of their fellow-Christians? Perhaps it's because I was not a cradle Piskie that I don't really care about the worldwide Anglican Communion - at least, not nearly as much as I care about affirming the rights of all God's people to answer the call to serve God as priests, to demonstrate their love for one another in the way that everyone else does, and to celebrate that love before God and among their friends.

I suspect that it’s harder for men than it is for women to accept gay men, and harder still for ordained men to understand the frustrations of people who have for reasons of gender or orientation been denied what they have attained. But that doesn’t make it all right. It just means more self-examination and self-awareness – and the self-discipline never, ever to allow themselves to dismiss the struggles in this area as unimportant in the face of whatever horrors the world throws up. That, I’m afraid, is too easy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Daniel Harper Gerrard Findlay

My father would have been 100 years old today. I associate his birthday with strawberry tarts – he always preferred really good strawberry tarts to any other kind of cake, and in the days before unseasonal fruits, June was the time for them. When I was young, it seemed that the end of June was always hot and sunny – boiling sports days at Hughenden – before the rains arrived in time for the school holidays.

Not that Father would have complained. He didn’t really go in for complaining, come to think about it; he would damn something outright but never moan about it. He decided, after my struggles with Livy in S2 – did we really read Livy in S2? – that he was like Hannibal, of whom Livy said (I translate): “heat and cold were alike to him”. He underlined this stoicism with irritating remarks like “We didn’t call this hot in Sidi Barani’ – this if one of us was sufficiently ill-advised to moan about over-heating.

What did he do in Sidi Barani? To be honest, I really don’t know. When it became obvious that the Second World War was going to take some time, my father volunteered for the RAFVR before call-up reached his age-group (over 30) – because “I didn’t fancy myself in the HLI bunnet”. He came top in Cipher School and was sent to Cairo. There he seemed settled in a “nice little flat” with a pal – another English graduate – when the third flatmate, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered them all for service with the 8th Army in the Western Desert. This led to his being a bystander at the Battle of Alamein and meeting Churchill briefly while completely naked (Father, not Churchill) after a swim. Apparently his main dilemma was whether one saluted while naked.

But this military episode was hardly characteristic. Father had a 1st in English Language and Literature from Glasgow University. He was a brilliant and, in his day, famous teacher – when I began teaching, I kept meeting people who knew him, and who listened to see if I was at all like him, and it was the best praise to learn that I was. He seemed to me infallible, and if there was something he didn’t know, he’d find out: my Physics problems were a source of entertainment for him, rather as a Sudoku might be now. When at the age of 14 I seemed to be performing inadequately in Close Reading (we called it Interpretation then) he spent a wet holiday in Arran making up Interp tests from bits of the Glasgow Herald – and I did them, and starred in Interps from then on, right up to when I made them up myself for prelims.

When I was a teenager, I never suffered from teen angst about my parents. When my father for some professional reason visited the school I attended I was obscurely pleased when a friend reported sighting him, and I noticed how when all my (clever, interesting) friends came to the house they would engage in long and frequently serious conversation with him. Looking back, I realise that they didn’t have the luxury of this level of discussion at home, though at the time I didn’t really appreciate it. In current terms, my father was always cool, and could speak to anyone.

Not that he suffered fools gladly. Because I went to a selective school, my friends were academically able and on reflection quite mature in their interests – not socially, but intellectually. But I know that Father was perfectly capable of switching off while some acquaintance rattled mindlessly on, and remember my mother’s fury when this led him to utter some non sequitur in a pause. He called a next-door-neighbour the Ancient Mariner, and perfected a series of grunts to deter her while he planted out chrysanthemums on his side of the garden fence. Strangely, women loved him – regardless of or because of the ruthless honesty with which he addressed them. So did his senior pupils, and when he retired, some of them even visited the house with farewell presents for him.

I had always considered that my father’s detachment from the church was a revolt against his upbringing; his uncle the Revd Daniel Gerrard had been a notable Hebrew scholar and his cousin was a minister of the Kirk while he his youth had been made to attend church twice on Sundays as well as Sunday School. He used to describe himself as a buttress of the church rather than a pillar: he supported it from without as it was "good for other people." He, he went on to tell us, was a Certified Holy Pilgrim (another War experience) and had no need of church. When at the age of 27 I told him I was going to be confirmed, he enquired if I had thrown reason out of the window. But after my mother’s death, I found from his letters to her that as a young man he had held a very progressive view of God – one which I recognise as close to my own.

I wish he were alive now – not as an extremely old man, but my age, as I remember him best – to talk to him, to ask him questions, to share ideas, to introduce him to the people his grandsons became, to bring him his great-granddaughter. But he would have hated old age and infirmity, and the moment I heard of his death at the age of 69 I felt relief that he wouldn’t have to put up with either. So here’s to you, Dad, wherever you are – because, despite all you said, I believe that that indomitable soul is somewhere, and that somewhere is the better for it.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Out of the West

A sunny end to a wild day on Colonsay. We've done the Good Samaritan bit - only rather than a donkey the wifie concerned is waiting for a helicopter. Actually we had four helicopters here earlier, and the bar filled up with jolly RAF types in jumpsuits, which suited some (the lean, lithe ones) better than others. Despite the efforts of the local doctor, they were unable to give the wumman a lift. Insurance, they said. Such excitement. And I've just found out that the doc has to go to Oban with the helicopter - glad if saw Mr B's sore ear before he left!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Synod - taking it personally

Whew. Free at last! And managed, despite an hour's traffic halt on the M8, to have some time in the sun after being closeted in Synod. As others have commented live and reflectively on the proceedings, and the official website* does an excellent job of knowing what actually transpired, I'm going to stick to the personal: how was it for me?

Well, quietly satisfying, actually. This time last year I posted this about what I wanted to see happening, including training for people who need modern communications technology, and this year I learned that there will indeed be training. And two years ago, after my first Synod, I wrote this about my plea to think about blogging as a tool for ministry and sharing. I was despairing and dispirited. But this year? We had a lunchtime session on The Blogging Church, and the whole process of blogging commended to Synod - officially, rather than by a pink-haired newcomer. So things are happening, and I'm happy to be a small part of the process.

And for the rest? Well, I have a confession. I agree with the statement in the Synod papers about the importance of the shared Morning and Evening Prayer which framed each day of Synod. But on Friday my participation in prayer was marred. Overcome with the unpleasantness of the harmonies for the Antiphon to Psalm 4, I was completely distracted from asking for the light of the Lord's countenance as I realised that the source of my discomfort was nasty parallel fifths. And a further confession: I was delighted that, forty years after my last formal music education at university, I was able both to hear and see parallel fifths.

Pedantry can take many forms. Usually it's the split infinitive. I'm diversifying ...

*If you listen to the first audio report from Thursday, you'll hear me, sounding ... anything but profound. Ah well.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A sedentary Synod

Steeling myself to pack and leave for Edinburgh and the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, I find myself dreading one thing above all other: the thought of having to sit in one place for just over two days. I know there are people whose jobs are almost entirely sedentary - teaching never was, as far as I'm concerned - but three years of what you might call freedom to roam have given me a complete lack of tolerance of inactivity.

That said, I'm always struck by the seriousness and dedication of the people responsible for the business of Synod - people who show me up for the flippertigibbet I've become, and maybe always was. I shall do my best to maintain my rapidly declining attention-span, to avoid eating too much bread at lunchtime (sends me to sleep afterwards) and to sit in such a way as not to induce or exacerbate the dreaded spinal lurgie. And next week, I shall walk it all off.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Visualising the Bible

This extraordinarily beautiful image comes from Visualising the Bible, a site which visualises the textual cross references found in the Bible. The site's owner, Chris Harrison, explains that he and his collaborator "wanted something that honored and revealed the complexity of the data at every level", and in this I think they've succeeded.

The site has other diagrams and different ways of expressing the relationships between Biblical texts, as well as frequency visualisations. Not quite the stuff of the Lay Training class - but fascinating. I'm indebted to Ewan for remembering my more esoteric interests ...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

School, but not as we know it ...

I've been anticipating the holiday season by reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - maybe it's all this sunny weather that we've been having, uncharacteristically, in Argyll. The author's first book, it's the school story for grown-ups, rather in the way "Catcher in the Rye" is - though I hated Catcher and enjoyed this. It's the story of an outsider at boarding school in Massachusetts, the grant-aided student surrounded by wealthier kids, observing them in some detail as she struggles to find where she fits in.

School stories like this all benefit from the isolation of the setting - think The Chalet School, Tom Brown, Harry Potter, but think also the Agatha Christies set in remote country houses, or on a non-stop train. Any setting where the outside world cannot break in intensifies the emotions and the relationships within that setting, and that, I imagine, is as true in life as it is in fiction.

As such, Prep is a good example of the genre, well-written, perceptive and revealing. The foreignness of the American education revealed is an added attraction - though the effects of such an education could, I imagine, be hard to shake off. I was particularly interested in the interaction between the sexes in the school - but that may be a generational thing: there were no boys at The Chalet School.

I read Prep in a British edition, so was spared the irritation of American spelling; the dialogue and narrative are not noticeably American. Is this because Massachusetts isn't? In fact, apart from the slight puzzle working out stages - sophomore etc - and relating them to age-groups, the most extraordinary thing was the names. A girl called Dede (turned out to be the name of the author's aunt); a boy called Cross - both first names - and another girl called Aspeth: names I had never, ever come across. Girls whose first names I would give to a boy: Lee, Curtis (the author). I was sufficiently interested to enquire of a friend in the States what all this was about. (She has a perfectly recognisable name - no worries there)

This is what came back:
Southerners, especially, name their children family names - no matter the gender - or something like Jimmie Rae for a girl because the father wanted a boy! In the North we use family names, too, but usually as middle names. Rednecks usually choose Bobby Sue or some fly by night name. Also, they name boys Bobby or Jimmy, or Charlie - not real names.

So there's obviously a hierarchy of names, just as there is in the UK.

Prep is an entertaining read, with no infelicities to distract you in the sunshine. And though my borrowed copy was a pristine hardback - meaning no sun oil or hand lotion! - it is now available in paperback.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Stories, poems - and a challenge

The other day, over at wordswordswords my friend Alison launched a challenge: to write a very short story (100 words) or poem suggested by the words "She was just frying an egg when she expired". Always up for a challenge, even at an hour when sensible people are thinking of bed, I had a bash, and for the purposes of this post I'm going to replicate the result. Story first - because at this point I hadn't seen that a poem would be acceptable:


‘She was just frying an egg, when she expired!’ Bella’s voice was redolent of Morningside, though she currently occupied a room in a flat in Canonmills.

There was a touch of the Ancient Mariner about Bella now that she had a story to tell. The egg-frier, it transpired, had been the owner of the flat, and that morning Bella had found her lying on the floor, the egg blackened in the frying pan.

‘It was the smell, you see.’ And you could tell by the frozen horror on her listeners’ faces that they weren’t thinking of burned egg.

Now, I found that quite difficult. I don't really write stories these days, and in the absence of a class full of weans to challenge in this fashion it's been 3 years since my last micro-story. But then I saw that I could try a poem, and bashed on:


‘She was just frying
an egg, when she
expired!’ And that
was that. No time
to worry about
clean undies or
what the ambulance man
might think.
Just the smell of
hot fat and the
cosy sputtering as she
sputtered to the floor
with a fish slice
in a clenched hand.
Death came too
early in the day
for her to be making
the nice scone more
suited to her station
than a vulgarly
fried egg.

I see I left the original quotation marks in, and shall continue to do so - think the beginning of Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" or Larkin's "Poetry of Departures" (where I prefer the demotic spoken interjections in italics) - because the original remit contained information about accent, and this was an important feature in both attempts.

But my point is really that in doing this I was reminded forcibly about what poetry does. For I was well over 100 words in the story before I realised it, and was nowhere near my point, that the genteel Bella was now going to be homeless and that it might be hard for her and that no-one was going to notice this in their reaction to the death of her landlady. I had to prune wildly and then rely on the title to suggest this theme, and my ending relied on black humour for its effect rather than anything more subtle.

The poem, on the other hand, has information in the spaces between the lines. Somehow it seems easier to suggest the sudden pangs of death in one word, and to create the scene by the repetition of 'sputtering' when no-one is expecting me to spell it out. The reader supplies the knowledge about the worry of having an accident in grubby undies - do people still talk about that, or is everyone fussier anyway in these days of ubiquitous washing machines? - and the realisation that a scone might be seen as more typical fare for a genteel lady of a certain antiquity than a fried egg. And somehow it doesn't matter if the reader wonders about the accuracy of their assumptions, because this is a poem and speculation is part of the game.

So when poetry doesn't rhyme of even necessarily have a recognisable rhythm, here is something which defines it: the potential of what isn't said, the context suggested by a word or a juxtaposition.

And finally, on a teacherly note: if I were in a classroom right now, I'd be setting my students to enter that challenge - unless of course the Education Authority in its wisdom had barred blogs. And I'd love to see what came out of a rush of micro-stories here. So I'm passing on the challenge to anyone who reads this - follow the link at the top of this post and put your efforts in the comments. Go on - it's not bedtime yet!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Skype family McIntosh

Skype family
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
You've read about the family that blogs together? Well now you have the family that Skypes together. Thanks to the generous loan of an iSight from Mr Heathbank I was at last able to appear as more than an old photo for Catriona on Skype.

When I was small I was obsessed with the notion of travelling in Space - and the capital S is intentional. And I'm talking pretty small here - seven or so, if memory serves. But later came the kind of communications they had in the first series of Star Trek: I dreamed of face-to-face chats at the touch of a button. And here it is. Allowing for the slight time-lag when we waved to each other - as you can see, I'm doing just that - it was pretty impressive.

By the end of the call Catriona seemed to have become used to the idea that her grandparents were in the laptop. I can remember when I was convinced an entire symphony orchestra - complete with white ties and tails - fitted inside my parents' black bakelite radio. Some things don't change - they simply become more fun.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Norman MacCaig on God

This is the poem I read on Sunday which moved me to write again. I have Mr B to thank for pointing it out to me as we discussed the morning's readings. I can hear Norman MacCaig's voice in the words. I think it's great. I shall keep trying!

The big tease

When the flood went down
Noah was glad
in his gloomy way
and gave thanks to the Lord.

When the ram
made its pitiful noise
in the thicket
Abraham gave thanks to the Lord also.

They thought big in those days.
- Anyone who carried a joke
so far
must be the Lord.

Even Ishmael
had to admit it.

Norman MacCaig.

Monday, June 02, 2008

New poem

Yesterday, as usual, I listened to the sermon with all the attentiveness of someone who knows she will soon have to write about it. And, as I do every second week, I sat down later and wrote up the service for the local paper. Now, I know what I and my alter ego write goes down well in the community - people come up to me in Somerfields to tell me they like it - and must be reasonably effective - one of the Old Guard at church hates the way we write because, presumably, we write like the bloggers we are. But yesterday I had a wild notion to write something different, something which really pointed to the difference between choices.

I wanted to write about the girls in Argyll Street shouting their displeasure at Sunday. Sunday, as Doctor Who said the previous day, is always "very boring". That's what I thought as a kid - until the homework took over. So the readings about building your house on the rock instead of sand, about the choices you make in life - they're really about choosing whether Sunday is boring and restrictive or something much better. Are they? Is that the relevance, really?

Anyway, you can see the poem that resulted from this here. The paper would never have published it, even though the language is that of the town it serves. And maybe, tomorrow, I'll put up the poem which inspired me to write one. But not today - it's too good.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

On a cheerier note...

After my rant of t'other day I feel a cheerful post coming on. A recommendation, in fact. Because one of the highlights of our drive north last weekend was stopping for elevenses at The Water Mill in Blair Atholl. Having had breakfast at 5.30am, we'd already had service station espressos, but now we were ready for something more soothing.

Di had a distant memory of the tearoom at this old mill, and had us off the A9 and diving down the loop road into Blair Atholl before we knew it. And there, just off the main village road past the Atholl Arms Hotel, down past the level crossing, was this lovely old-fashioned place with wooden tables and benches and a choice of decent tea (Earl Grey and herbal as well as standard). And scones. Lovely big scones, still warm in the middle, with butter and jam as you wanted. And fabby bagels - I sampled Di's; to have both would have been sheer greed.

And when we'd finished we bought a loaf for the next day's purvey which was as soft and cakey as you could wish, and square home-made oatcakes, and a big bag of their wholemeal bread flour. And - lest you think we go in entirely for this healthy stuff - champagne fudge. Hmm.