Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cleaning up the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Silly Steps

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

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

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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

First sight ...

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Of stables and camels and life-saving surgery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New poem and procrastination

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2008

Alternative Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Music, words and candlelight.

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

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

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

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

Oh - and totally exhausted. Did I mention that?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Of lethal decorations and other matters

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

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Randomly festive thoughts

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Earworms and emotion

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Old-fashioned friendship

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hic bene dormitur

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Try this

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

Smug? Moi?

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

*I scored 15. The lower the better.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Of Malthus, and others.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Blooming elsewhere

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

Go and see!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A poem for a baby

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

Alan, on the other hand, is completely special.


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

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

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent obsessions

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

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