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.