Thursday, July 31, 2008

A poem and a church

Llananno church
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A highlight of last week's wandering round tiny deserted Welsh churches was a visit to the church of St Anno, Llananno church. We almost drove past it, despite our hosts' knowing it was there - the road runs above the little river valley it sits in, and the sign was facing the wrong way and half obscured in a hedge. The special thing for me was the association with the poet R.S.Thomas, who wrote a poem about this church - a hand-written copy is displayed on the wall just inside the door.
"I often call there" he begins,
"in a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
I don't know how many people seek out the church precisely for this connection, but it was apparent that there were no regular services held there. The door was open, the grass around it had been cut, but there was little sign of life other than some slightly drooping flowers on the altar - "brownish now", to go back to Larkin. But behind the altar, through the plain glass of the large East window, a huge tree in full leaf seemed to suggest a great life force embracing this quiet place, so that the whole place seemed full of it.

There Thomas felt he came
"face to face,
with no intermediary
between me and God"
and recalled the delicate light which entered his soul.

The whole poem can be found in Thomas' Collected Poems (p3.304), or you can read it here. I realise now how much of the poetry I love was shaped by such places - and how enhanced my understanding has been by my visit to this one. Why didn't I think of a school trip...?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chopping and changing

Rood screen
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've already blogged about our visit to this tiny church of St Ellwye, Llandieu, Telgarth, but I want to revisit the experience briefly. The photo here - rather fuzzy, as my phone isn't up to dim interiors - shows the mediaeval rood-screen typical of many of the churches we visited, truncated at its right-hand end to accomodate a small pulpit. This reflected the change in emphasis in worship after the Reformation, when preaching assumed a greater importance, but the result is visually lopsided and aesthetically upsetting. And as the church is now disused, of course, there seems even less reason for such architectural vandalism.

But I wonder how it was at the time when the alteration was made. Was there the equivalent of a vestry committee, arguing over the structural alterations? Did someone ask what was more important: beauty or The Word? Or were all consumed with such reforming zeal that they merely bashed on, and anyone who had regrets kept these to himself for fear of seeming too papist? However it was done, the alterations are now themselves ancient, and the disagreements long forgotten. This was a silent, powerful space, deserted by all but the bats and a sense of the holy made all the stronger by the lack of domestication which had tamed a more cared-for church (like St Bilo's, seen later in the day and pictured in the earlier blog post).

And this, of course, is where Larkin comes in - again!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pictorial story challenge

I'm back from the wilds of Herefordshire, though organising my life (mainly in the laundry and larder departments) has kept me from my laptop today. So can I just publicise the appearance of a new challenge on Frying an Egg - a visual one this time - to keep you busy till I blog again.

And I s'pose I'd better write a wee something there too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saint's Day

We celebrated Mary Magdalene today in All Saints Church in the centre of Hereford, not in the birdsong quiet of Holy T but among the lunchtime bustle of the busy cafe in the back of the nave. As I listened to the firm, light voice of the celebrant - it must have been arduous for her - I thought of the people straining to hear the precious words of Christ. And somehow it seemed fitting - though I would never have thought it would. A good day, under a baking sun.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ancient things

Wales - the bit near us anyway - is full of tiny, ancient churches. This one is St Bilo's Church, Llanfilo, and is obviously very much loved and cared for. The mediaeval rood screen inside sags to the right; we learned that recent subsidence meant that the north-east wall had to be pinned, but didn't know if the two were related. Prince Charles seems to have paid a flying visit last month, presumably in his Prince of Wales mode.
Earlier in the day, when the sun had still to reappear and the wind was discouraging, we ate our picnic in the porch of another tiny, mediaeval church : the Church of St Ellwye, Llandieu, Telgarth, at the foot of the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons national park. This church was a sad contrast to St Bilo's, looked after only by the Friends of Friendless Churches and used only once a year. Sheep wandered among the toppled gravestones, and bat droppings littered the porch floor. There were remarkable traces of mediaeval painting on the walls, including one of Adam and Eve and The Tree of Life of which only their feet and legs remained; I'll post more photos when I'm back at my own computer. I even forgot my camera on this trip - the pics are from my phone.
Having bodyswerved Matins as our Sunday worship, we said some prayers and sang "Come Holy Ghost" in St Ellwye's - so perhaps we doubled the worship in this place for this year. It was another of these Celtic thin places - a special place on a grey, quiet morning.
And then the sun came out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blogging off

I'm blogging off for a few days - though if my hosts in deepest Herefordshire have indeed acquired internet access and will allow me, I may succumb to temptation. But in a way, it's refreshing not to be tied to the computer - I shan't be taking it with me. Besides, my laptop is now quite elderly (four in August) and throws little cardiac episodes if taken away from home. I know I really want a new one, but not so brutally.

I go with a strange commission: to photograph the Tardis loo in All Saints' Church in the centre of Hereford - the one with the cafe at the back - and if possible to find out about it. Should make for an interesting conversation-piece.

A bientot, mes amis ...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

English as she is spoke

My pal Kenny blogged the other day about his use of the word "amn't". You can catch the drift (and the ten comments so far) here, where you'll see that in addition to the "speaking properly" question there is a confusion about what constitutes dialect. I've probably visited this subject before, but feel moved, as I used to when teaching, to revisit.

It is the scourge of this part of the world to aspire to posh talk. Often this will have a southern English accent and a tendency to use the nominative form of the personal pronoun whatever the grammatical requirements of a sentence. I've had to deal with pupils quite adamant that "Mrs X told Jimmy and I not to do that" was correct because their mother insisted they didn't say "me" in that context - it took about twenty exemplar sentences and the removal of all other nouns to show them the principle behind it. Of course, they hadn't been parsing sentences from age seven or wrestling with Latin, poor ignorant little mites ...

But it's this business of confusing grammatical inaccuracy with dialect that is currently getting my goat. "Amn't" is a perfectly legitimate contraction of "am I not" - and the absurd "Aren't I" is simply wrong, no matter how many marbles fill the mouth of the speaker. Dialect involves words like "scunner" and "glaikit" - regional words used in sentences which may be syntactically perfect.

Am I alone in caring about stuff like this? I know that some of my colleagues complained that with my departure from the school there would be no-one to ask about the grammar bits in Interpretation passages - for my generation was almost the last to be routinely educated in this fashion. And does it really matter in the greater scheme of things? I'd say yes. For I'm convinced that a grasp on the finer points of sentence construction is what still makes people accuse me of being nippy (moi? nippy? I ask you!) because I can say what I mean with relative brevity and clarity, and that much never can be obsolete ...

And besides, I can always feel smug when I see others getting it wrong. Or enraged.

Note: There's a wee quotation hidden in that lot. Usual plaudits apply.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A dog's life?

I had a new experience yesterday. I went to the vet. No, I wasn't ailing and no, I haven't acquired an animal. I was meeting Mrs Heathbank who had been held up by a scarcity of vets and was lurking in the car park with her canine companions awaiting their turn. Because it was a mild, pleasant afternoon, other animals and their people were doing the same thing, and the car park was quite busy. Apparently an ailment called kennel cough is rampant in Dunoon and vaccinations were the order of the day for the Heathbank Kennel Club, whose members include one Hamish, yet another small spaniel.

However, this jolly family outing was put into perspective by the presence of another friend of mine whose 15-year-old dog was at the vet for the last time. If you know me at all, you'll know that dogs are not my thing, but I found it difficult to be detached as I stood with this quiet, dignified collie waiting to be called. When he left, my friend couldn't bear to go and her partner took the dog away. There was no fuss, and we went on talking. I was aware of trying to keep it light and mildly distracting - and then the partner returned carrying the lead. And that was that.

I hope I was of some use. But I wonder if everyone who gets a puppy or a kitten thinks on that day of the other end of the animal's life - because any pet-owner stands a good chance of outliving their pet and having to deal with their end. And many will have to make the decision when that end will be. I suppose they think it's worth it.

This post, by the way, is dedicated to Charlie, who thinks I write too much about church. Tomorrow I feel a post coming on about grammar ...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Out of Africa

Today, I'm glad I'm not a bishop. I can't help feeling that these jet-lagged men and women must feel rather as I used to on the school French Exchange, when our hosts had all sorts of socialising and sightseeing lined up for us and all I wanted to do was sit in the sun with a glass of kir. And tomorrow they all head south for Lambeth - in a bus. Apparently the Bishop of Karimnagar balked at this, but maybe he was thinking of a different type of bus. I hope theirs is a classy one.

However, the Bishop of Central Tanganyika was with us at Holy T yesterday, and made a huge impression. This youthful-looking man has already been a bishop for 19 years and still manages to exude joy and strength. Among the many things I learned was that his stipend is only enough to live on for 15 days a month. For the rest, he farms. I don't mean he owns a farm which someone else works: he takes off for three days at a time to live in a small hut on the farmland while he plants, tends and reaps. So when he preached on the day's gospel - the parable of the Sower - he really knew what he was talking about. The metaphorical weeds which choke his people's flowering are those of worry and survival - though, as he pointed out with some force, we are choked by wealth. Over lunch, we heard that most of the priests ordained in his diocese are non-stipendiary - they are encouraged to live off the land as they minister to those around them - but there is no shortage of vocations, with young men - and women - coming forward in droves.

The picture I came away with was of a country where people - Christian and Moslem - talk about God in the same way as we talk about the weather, where life is hard and precarious, where the scourge of HIV/Aids is still growing and has left 50,000 orphans, where clergy live and work alongside the people to whom they minister, sharing their lives and their worries. No wonder the church in Africa is growing. It must seem a great deal more relevant if you've been sweating alongside your priest one day and listening to what he or she (there are 15 female priests in Central Tanganyika) has to say on a Sunday. And it was good to know in the run-up to this Lambeth that there are people like Bishop Mdimi, assuring us that Africa is a huge and diverse country and that not all African bishops are like Bishop Akinola. So I shall be praying for someone I feel I know just a little in the weeks ahead - and feeling rather less ambivalent about the whole shebang.

Now, what jabs do you need to visit Tanzania?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A high old time

The group photo
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
One of the joys of being a musician is that in the middle of ordinary life you can take off and spend a day working your socks off and having the greatest fun - and then being thanked for it at the end of the day. Yesterday was such an occasion. As the bishops of the Anglican Communion - or at least, such parts of it as don't think the rest of us are all bound for Hell in a handcart - began to arrive in the UK for the Lambeth Conference, they were whisked off to the various dioceses for the weekend, and three of them, with their wives, fetched up on the Isle of Cumbrae at the Cathedral of The Isles. Doubtless they were allowed to go to bed early after the rigours of their journeys, but first they had to attend a Festal Choral Evensong - and this, dear reader, is where yours truly came in.

This, it has to be said, was one of the best incarnations of Cumbrae Cathedral Choir that I've experienced. Eight voices, nae passengers, old friends from University Chapel Choir and early days in teaching, sopranos without a wobble, either mental or vocal. We were able to sing through everything and concentrate on unanimity, and no-one lost their cool for so much as a flicker. And in between we giggled like school kids - remember, only two of us were under 60 - and the years vanished.

The service was joyous - clouds of incense, some great music (from Boyce's All the Ends of the Earth through to Britten's wonderful Festival Te Deum), +Martin's address of welcome. At the end, we watched with interest as a small pipe band appeared over the lawn: would they strike up before Jonathan Cohen had finished his Vidor? But no; they were well-briefed and there were no hiccups other than a degree of mild hysteria.

Afterwards, of course, there was the photo-op (I handed my Leica to Frank, fresh from Texas via Aberdeen). This was another flash-back moment, as it was this kind of event which propelled me into the arms of the Piskie Church in the first place, and when I have more time I shall scan a similar but ancient photo for comparison. (If you click the pic, you can see who was who). And people thanked us, over and over again. What do you say? It seemed wrong, somehow, to be thanked for having such a good time.

But the last word belongs to Martin, Bishop of Argyll. Emerging from the cathedral to the choir waiting in the porch at the end of the service, he punched the air: "Yes!" he said. "Amen!". Amen indeed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The third egg in the pan

There's a new writing challenge at Frying an Egg, and I've kicked off with yet another tale of domestic triviality. It's interesting to wonder if this is result of the stimulus or if I simply don't get out enough - or read the right kind of lit these days. It's also interesting, once again, how much you have to chop to keep to the right word-count; I've gone slightly over this time but hope I'll be excused.

As a result, of course, the morning has passed without domesticity - other than ironing a king-sized duvet. I definitely need to get out more.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Good company saves the day

We've been celebrating 38 years of marriage today (the long-service medals are on the table) with our pals from Heathbank. It's as well the company was excellent and the wine a pleasant Merlot, for the meal was possibly the worst I've ever eaten in a restaurant.

Garlic bread sounds like a safe and toothsome starter - no? Well, no. This gave me my first opportunity in about ten years to eat what Di called "duck bread" - white sliced, barely toasted, with a sad drizzle of pallid oil. The accompanying salad was naked. Not a vestige of dressing. And it should have been a tomato salsa - I've just remembered that. The lamb noisette was toughly tasteless, and the dish of vegetables (for four to share) would have served me if I'd been alone. To be fair, the waitress said "just ask for more" - so we did, immediately, and ended up with a reasonable quantity. There was no decaffeinated coffee on offer.

In the end, having complained, we weren't charged for the starters. I've eaten at The Pier on several occasions and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I won't be returning. There was a definitely slapdash atmosphere about the whole operation, right down to the missing tiles on the loo wall. We emerged to a beautiful, midge-laden evening, with a wonderful sky over Loch Eck. My phone camera doesn't do justice to it. And Mr B is confirmed in his high opinion of my cooking. Here's to the next 38 years - or maybe not!

Monday, July 07, 2008


Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Yesterday's Episcopal visit - apart from being a chance for us all to enjoy our Bishop's presence (and singing) - was centred on the commissioning of lay people to various tasks in the church. So two Eucharistic ministers, two chalice-bearers and four preachers were duly commissioned and blessed in front of the congregation to fulfil these tasks as and when required. In addition, a priest who has been for some time a member of the congregation was given a licence to function as a priest in the diocese of Argyll and The Isles.

Put like that, it doesn't sound much. Quite official and formal. In reality, however, it was extremely moving and highly charged. As one of the Lay Preachers, I was reminded forcefully of my confirmation 34 years ago, only with a renewed sense of urgency and responsibility. When I read the wording of the certificate (pictured) the enormity of the charge was at once daunting and exciting. I already know what is involved, as we've been doing these things for some time now, but to be formally recognised was an important step.

Afterwards, the atmosphere was like Christmas - there was a great deal of hugging and an encouraging number of broad smiles. And the music was great and +Martin his usual electrifying self. And as Kimberly points out, she managed to cough with extreme tact and spent much of the service hidden by clouds of incense.

We're very lucky, really.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Game, set and match

I had thought to post about the special service at Holy Trinity this morning, but suddenly it seems like another day and my head is full of the thwack of tennis balls and Mr B is even now washing up not only dinner dishes for four but also the remains of lunch as our guests head off on a two-hour drive home.

Somehow rain stopped play in all the correct places - the first time to let me put a chicken in the oven, the second to let us eat off the dining room table rather than our laps. The way we were carrying on, I suspect much of the chicken might have fetched up on the floor. And what a great match - we were on tenterhooks right up to the last game.

I don't know how they do it, Nadal and Federer - my shoulder aches just to think of keeping up that kind of activity for five minutes, let alone nearly five hours. And that's not even thinking about the running around ... And so gentlemanly, the pair of them - just great. So I shall save any reflections on the rest of the day for a moment of calm, and enjoy instead the catharsis of the moment.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

Doctor, doctor ...

Brilliant. The final episode of the current Doctor Who series had all the ingredients required to make this kind of thing work. The special effects, of course, mean that the sets don't wobble and the Daleks have been developed so that they have a more adult menace than I recall from the William Hartnell days, but it's the human bits that make the difference as far as I'm concerned. Usually on a Saturday evening I'm not up to keeping track of technobabble, but I can still keep up with good old human relationships, and that's what we have these days.

I've always maintained that the most successful fantasy occurs when the fantastic erupts into the mundane. Think of a great kids' book like Alan Garner's Elidor. The most frightening chapter is when the other world suddenly breaks through into ordinary 20th century Manchester and all the electrical equipment in the family's kitchen goes bananas while outside in the garden the terrified children can see the armies of another world - through the letter box. The best bits of Doctor Who come in the relationships with his companions - and their relationships in the ordinary world. It's the contrast, the juxtaposition, bringing the madness of the Tardis-world into focus.

I can't say all I would like as I don't want to spoil the finale for Edublogger, stranded Wholess in the States, but I can't help remembering the women in The Virginian when I were but a lass.

Sun on the fourth of July

BBQ @ Ardentinny
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I have heard it said that it's bad form to pray for good weather. Someone must've ignored such correctness, for today's BBQ for the congregation of Holy T was blessed with the most unlikely weather imaginable. We moved from the midgy fastnesses of the church grounds - all very picturesque in their own way - and colonised the end of the beach at Ardentinny. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, a light breeze tweaked the frisbee from its path, and the midges were kept more or less at bay by the smoke from a fine fire on the sand.

It's days like this that make you glad you belong to a tiny church perched on the fringes of civilisation (and after all, you can just make out the storage location of Britain's Trident missiles in the background of the pic, so obviously we have all the accoutrements of 21st century life to hand). We had the beach to ourselves; presumably most would-be picnickers had been put off by the torrential rain at breakfast time. Octogenarian cricketers set about a ball with a ferocity which had me looking for the resuscitation equipment and Mr B revisited his youth with a few sixes into the trees. A game of frisbee on the sand had some of us hurling ourselves about in an injudicious fashion for which we shall doubtless suffer, and KB exhorted all to risk toothache and seared lips with toasted marshmallows.

It was the best of barbies, this, and all the better for the total lack of any Plan B. The weather just had to be good, and it was. Happy Independence Day, Kimberly - great party!

* Other pics of the day can be seen here

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Music again

Following the theme of my last post ... music plays such a huge part in the things that matter to me. I'm just doing some typing for Mr B (faster fingers on this keyboard, if not any other!) so that we have enough copies of a new hymn for a music workshop later today. (And yes: we have a licence for this). And it strikes me forcibly what poor verse even some of our most glorious hymns have for their text: poetic diction, primarily, a form found only in hymns nowadays, and in the pastiche poetry of students, and tired metaphors and similes, and the predictable use of the word to fit the rhyme. So why say the hymns are 'glorious'? Must be the music.

Stripped of the vehicle of music, the words are often banal and awkward. It's the same with popular music - I think I first realised this when the Romeo, a teen comic of my youth, printed the words of the current hits on the back page of every issue so's you could sing along. I was struck then by two things: the fact that they were often wildly different from what I thought I had heard (diction not being Tommy Steele's top priority) and the fact that they were, in the cold clarity of text, rubbish.

Better just stick to singing in Latin, huh?