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, 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.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

King's Place

This is the interior of London's newest venue. King's Place opened today with the first of a week of concerts, and the Bletherses were there. There is something great about using a superb building on its very first day - everything works, the freshly-made sandwiches are indeed made before your eyes, the toilets are pristine, men glide round collecting empty cups or sweeping minute traces of grime from the gleaming floor.

We had lunch there, we wandered outside to look at the canal basin with its barges (photos to follow), we saw an exhibition of sculptures with annoying titles but pleasing proportions (a little large, the one I liked best, for the hall the The Blethers) - and then we went to two concerts in the largest of the concert halls. Ian Burnside and friends gave us a variety of songs from Purcell to Schubert to Britten to Edward Rushton [this is suddenly impossible, as I have been joined at the keyboard by Ginny the cat, purring loudly and walking all over the mouse, appropriately enough] in an acoustic to die for, in a hall full of a fascinating collection of people. Mr B is, of course, more qualified to comment than I, but it was great.

Between the two concerts, we had an espresso in the lobby and were seized upon for an interview to camera about our experience at the venue. When I said we'd come all the way from Argyll specially for these concerts, I was made to repeat it at another angle to the camera - so we'll need to watch out for this somewhere. We had a lovely time, really, and successfuly negotiated the tubes, stations and trains back to Tosh Towers in time for me to hijack a Tosh Mac for this blogpost.

Actually, one of the best moments happens every time we pass the barriers into the stations - I just love flipping my newly-acquired Oyster card at the sensor and sailing through the magically opened gate without breaking stride. Just like a real Londoner.

NB: Owing to the difference between the Tosh camera and my own I am unable to upload my really good pics of today's event, so you'll have to make do with a rather blurry phone shot.