Friday, January 30, 2009

Whose gate is it anyway?

I was thinking about hymns on the back of an irritating discussion t'other day. A rummage in Google - because I was thinking first about the deeply unsuitable words of some Victorian hymns - produced the above which may amuse (though you may have to click on it for it to be legible). All things bright and beautiful may indeed be a pleasant thought, but the absurd social references of the rest of it can either make us laugh or squirm. And Mr B apparently spent many a tortured hour in his youth wondering why the poor man was waiting at his gate because he thought it was his own gate that he was standing at. Waiting for the Lord, perhaps? or for a handout? or for the post? You see, hymn words can trouble the young. Dangerous stuff.

But I digress. The loudest bee in my bunnet tonight is caused by those who turn up their noses at anything written in the last 100 years - or maybe the last 75 years - as "Radio Two" hymns, or "happy clappy" hymns, or simply "rubbish". My especial hornet is reserved for people who say this and are themselves indifferent church musicians, or who think only of the tunes of hymns, or simply cannot deal with the demands of modern tunes because actually they can't play them. In fact, such people tend to make such a hash of any they do play that the piece sounds as awful as they claim, and we're going round in circles.

Where am I going with this? A happy land far, far away? Not sure, really. Maybe I should stick to words for now. Because many modern religious songs actually have much more acceptable words because the authors have been freed from the demands or rhyme and/or regular metre, so they don't have to wrestle with unpleasant poetic diction to fit in, nor seize on tried and trusted rhymes - spirit and merit spring to mind, for some reason: must be the way you say it. So can I make a plea for a more critical look at words, a more honest appraisal of abilities, and a more open mind among those who would choose and perform hymns?

And maybe a thought for the punters who are trying to achieve a prayerful frame of mind?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Glass ceilings and scolds' bridles

When I was teaching, there was a past paper that we used for exam practice in Interpretation/Close Reading/What you will in which the passage set for interpretation dealt with the concept of the Glass Ceiling. This, of course, is the idea that women will never go all the way to the top in business because of factors which aren't obvious - or indeed are invisible - but merely because they are women. It was a difficult test, and some pupils struggled to understand the concepts, but the girls were uniformly indignant when the penny finally dropped.

My rant yesterday led me to considering a feature of this glass ceiling, one which the passage in question dealt with in one paragraph. (See how well I recall these things? I must have marked hundreds of papers on this one) The problem, apparently, is that an assertive woman is seen as strident, bossy. So any time a woman in a largely male environment comes up with a firmly-expressed opinion - especially if it's at odds with the opinions of the men - she's a nagging harridan. The men close ranks and freeze her out - and have a snigger later over a drink. And as her promotion will rest with men such as these, she'll stick. They don't want her in a position where she might also tell them what to do.

This was in business, but I can't help thinking it's pretty rife in church circles too. In the last twenty years or so there have been big changes in what is "allowed" in the church (let's stick with the Anglican/Episcopal model) - so we have women ordained to the priesthood and (though not yet in the UK) consecrated as bishops. But it's still seen as ok to object to them, to refuse to have them in your parish, to make sure they are not elected or even selected for consideration for a bishopric.

I was looking recently at a scold's bridle* in some museum or other. It was a vile instrument of torture, and it took little imagination on my part to feel the pain and horror of having to suffer this iron cage with a metal bar depressing the tongue and a padlock securing it at the back of the neck. I felt revolted that it was even there for me to see, representing as it did the unquestioned right of men to shut women up. I suppose these are the men who now look at a forcible woman as they would at a mouse who roared. Maybe that's progress after all...

*I'll leave this as a singular scold, I think, despite the horrid realisation that the thing would be used on many women.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Being nice

Been thinking this past couple of days about the implications of "Christian" behaviour. My reverend friend has obviously been suffering some constraints, and Rosemary has been pondering the cost of discipleship when it comes to worship experiences. And reading what these blogs had to say reinforced my current discomfort. The stone in my shoe is the need to be, for want of a better word, "nice". (I know: I used to forbid any use of this word unless to mean exact, but I need the implications of this usage).

And so: Does a Christian have to let himself be dragooned into a situation simply because it would seem churlish to say no? Does operating in a church environment mean that the weakest brethren will actually prevail at the expense of everyone else, simply because no-one else can bear to point out that they can't deliver? Is it, in fact, unacceptable to say "no"? (This is different from saying "yes" and then drifting off later, which seems somehow more acceptable). Is the kind of directness which you find in the outside world somehow beyond the pale? Are we doomed to the lowest common denominator?

Maybe it's simpler than that. Perhaps it's just the curse of the voluntary organisation, where a few professionals have to try to keep everyone on board. Best not to rock the boat in case someone falls out? On the other hand, would they fall, or would they be pushed?

Note: happily, I am not referring to church life in my home patch. But I get around ...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Strange Meeting?

The photo above shows one of the compensations of having meetings in this part of the world - the sun setting in a sudden blaze of glory above Loch Fyne took us by surprise after a fairly grey day, making me regret that I didn't have the Leica with me. Not bad for a phone pic all the same. But it was after two days of meetings, of sitting round a table struggling to come to agreement over what should happen at an event, or shuffling through piles of papers and balance sheets while the seat grew harder and the room stuffier, that I realised what a great job teaching is. Actually it was when I saw on the news a feature about a firm of receivers, and saw them sitting shuffling papers and talking about balance sheets that it burst upon me that no matter how frustrating or exhausting life in the classroom was it was infinitely more suited to my temperament, and I knew that life in an office environment would have driven me mad.

And there was a pleasing moment before the meetings began, when the wife of one of my Twitter followers turned up at the Diocesan Centre in Oban announcing that she was here to pay for some olive oil. She didn't know who I was, and she didn't seem to know her man's online name, nor the fact that the oil was actually for a third party, also one of my Twitterites, also a complete stranger. And so I have introduced Zaytoun Palestinian olive oil to Oban, recouped some of my outlay, and been confirmed in the knowledge that I chose the right job after all. Can't all be bad, huh?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oh, Miss...

I've been inspired by one of the comments on yesterday's post to reflect on what led to punishment - and in particular corporal punishment - in my schooldays. Bun, for example, recalls being belted because she and her friend were singing "Bobby's Girl" and banging the desk (presumably twice) for rhythmic effect, on the last day of term when no work was being done. She was also belted on several occasions for talking by (and this is where insider knowledge comes in) the Depute Head of the Primary school we both attended. He was a quiet little man, I remember, a BSc of Glasgow University, probably in his early 50s at the time. I was never belted by him.

But I was belted twice in my time at school. In Primary school I was singled out for bouncing a tiny ball in the sewing class (never did like sewing) and in Secondary for - yes - talking. In Maths, in S1. The young woman who was trying to teach a class of 40 bright girls in our selective school was foolish enough to tell all who were talking at that moment to put their hands up. At least half the class obliged, and she lined us all up on the floor and belted us, one after the other. By the time she reached me she was exhausted, though I suspect she would have saved more energy had the first victim, a tall girl called Lindsay, not whipped her hands back and said "Oh, miss, not me first!" And then she laughed. Fatal.

See how we remember? It was half a century ago and I can remember it exactly. So you might think it worked, as a punishment - but you'd be wrong. I remember the incidents because of their absurdity, an absurdity which I recognised even then. For the misdemeanours were so trivial and so absurd that they merited ... what? And perhaps this is the problem. What do you do to suppress inappropriate behaviour in a classroom? Hitting someone actually does stop them doing whatever it was for a while - I didn't go on bouncing that ball, and I maybe didn't chatter again in that maths period. But I despised both teachers at the time. Did they not have any jokes up their sleeves with which to put us down? Did they never laugh at us?

I think it's probably magic right enough. If a pupil respects/likes/is interested by a teacher, they want to please him or her. The idea of my beloved Latin teacher even saying he was disappointed in something I did or didn't do was so horrifying that I worked my socks off in his class, and it was that memory that spurred me as a teacher to ensure that I wasn't boring. Because much of my education was incredibly boring, now I think back, and it was the sheer ability of the best teachers to transcend the potentially stupefying nature of the curriculum that kept me from expulsion. When I think of the hours spent copying out notes - off banda-ed sheets or from the board - I realise what an essentially douce bunch we were, and I recall the tedium of the periods in English where I sat in the very back corner reading a book under the desk and eating Mintolas. What kind of teaching was happening there?

I went to a respected selective school in Glasgow. We all passed the Qualifying to stay in the Secondary department. The potential in these classes was immense. But in my whole time there, the highlight of my school week was the orchestra practice after school on Fridays. The rest, as you might say, is silence.

Except for the chattering ...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Back to school

Tower housing stairs
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Spent the later part of this afternoon indulging in some nostalgia with a visit - my first - to Scotland Street School, now a museum of school life during the 20th century. The classroom which stirred the strongest memories was the 1950s one with the double desks, joined by iron tubing to the simple hinged flap of wood which was the seat and with a shelf under the lid on which you could park the books you might need during the lesson. The ceramic inkwells were missing from their holes - remember the bottle of ink with the long pouring nozzle? - but the inkstains showed where they had been, and we were amused at how small even the larger desks were. We had, perhaps, grown.

I was amused at the sudden memory of going back to school for the start of a new term and finding that the simple conical glass lampshades had been replaced by larger, inverted-tulip-shaped ones with grilles over the wider end - and there they were, the new ones, in the 1950s classroom! It seems that the brown varnished dado and conical lampshades of my earliest memories had been there at least since the 1930s, although we had lost the stepped classroom which had apparently been a health hazard for all - especially the hapless teacher with her barked shins. And the high desk and chair of the teacher - replaced, it was claimed, in the 1960s - were nevertheless an important feature of my first teaching job in what, in 1968, was the oldest school building still in use in Glasgow.

I was struck, actually, by how incredibly dull teaching and learning was in the past: those dreary textbooks with the lists of words to learn at the end of the passage you had read, the huge classes crammed together, the repetition and the retribution if you strayed. And yet we learned stuff, and I can still do long division (and a fat lot of good that does me now). And I thought of disorder among the raked ranks of the oldest rooms, and of how the failure with a class would still feel as bitter then as now. I looked at the belt/tawse/strap in its glass case (two strands: probably a Lochgelly, as the Glasgow Corporation regulation belt had three and was black, not brown): I was a competent belter in my day (technique was all-important when you weighed less than 7 stones and had to belt a large boy) and yet I would have hated to do any such thing in my later teaching career.

The final pang of the past struck at 5pm when the bell rang to tell us they were about to close - and was reinforced by someone asking us if we knew it had gone as we dawdled on the way out. "Did you not hear the bell?" was usually asked at the other end of the day. I'm glad I at last made it to this museum - it's a gem.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I've read several blog posts - like this one - where the concluding benediction at yesterday's inauguration is discussed. I was interested in the bit near the end, the bit where all colours of humanity were covered:
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -- (laughter) -- when yellow will be mellow -- (laughter) -- when the red man can get ahead, man -- (laughter) -- and when white will embrace what is right.

And the question which interested me was about how white activists for racial equality might feel about it, for I know some such people. So I asked my friends, and the answer came back. Yes, they felt "pissed" (in the American sense, ie not drunk, but fed up); they felt it was "inappropriate". The thing is, I don't think I can comment, because I have never had to stick my neck out in this particular battle, have never suffered for it. But the very fact that it is white people who have made the running for so long must give us pause for thought. It's a hard one. Real equality is not so easily achieved - for does that not mean that none of us will even notice our differences?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration blethers

There was a wonderful moment in today's Presidential Inauguration ceremony - a quiet, reflective moment between the swearing in of V-P Joe Biden and President Obama, when a wonderful quartet played a new take on the melody Simple Gifts. The playing was sublime, and the effect breathtaking. And what did the BBC commentators do?

They talked. They said "We'll let you hear the music in a moment, but first ..." and on they went. Mercifully I had access to Sky HD: no talk at all, just the music. No annoying ticker-tape along the bottom of the screen either; they had this well sewn-up. So apart from an enraged 10 seconds or so I was able to listen, watch and enjoy.

It seems crabbit to moan on such a joyous day for so many people - and I share that joy, as much as any foreigner can. But I'd put these blethers in the stocks in chilly Washington, and with them the chap administering the oath who muddled his word order and could have learned from the aged guy who swore in the V-P.

Final thought? What a job to take on. It showed in Obama's face, I thought, as he walked towards the door onto the podium. In that moment, for all the millions who were waiting for him, he looked totally alone,

Enjoying inaguration day

Take a look, if you will, at How to enjoy an inauguration fully on the WSJ site. It's a good, tautly-written insight for all of us over here who can't quite get a handle on the excitement of today, whose brains tell us how good it is that America has done this thing but whose guts have yet to catch up. Peggy Noonan tells us we have to 'suspend our disbelief'.

Thanks to Neil for the heads-up.

Monday, January 19, 2009

If winter comes ...

I associate this time of year, rather oddly, with looking at houses. Specifically, houses and flats in Glasgow in January 1970, with a view to buying somewhere to live after our wedding that summer. One of the most heartening aspects of what was frequently a depressing process was the fact that it was still daylight after work, and that we weren't always looking at these houses in the dark. The photo above was taken this afternoon in the slightly snowy Bishop's Glen - at about 3.45pm, I think. That's what the light actually was like - I've been fiddling with exposures but wanted the real thing as well.

But later, I had to go down to the shops. At 4.40pm the sky had cleared and it was still light - light enough for the big cumulus that had passed to have a bright whiteness about it against the pale sky. A bright star - presumably a planet - reminded us that night was coming, but I felt that same lift of the spirits as I did on the house-hunting days. And by the second half of February - birthday-party time when my boys were small - the sun will still be visible at coming-home-from-school time and Spring will be on the way. Cheers!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Not '68 then

We're still here. It didn't blow last night, and by midnight was more or less calm. I think the Met Office have been more careful to have us well alarmed since the 1968 storm, when I can remember we were given no hint of the terrifying night to come on the telly that Sunday evening. We were lucky - we lost a chimney pot, which crashed through the skylight but not the interior fanlight, and were kept awake all night by the trumpet-blasts of wind hitting the copper draught-excluder on our bedroom windows. (I remember my fury when I realised that my parents, whose room faced away from the wind, had slept all night.) But the morning showed the devastation all around us: tenements with half the gable-end walls pulled down as the chimney head fell; roofs with gaping holes which were subsequently left covered in tarpaulin for months - years, even - as Glasgow's builders struggled to deal with the damage. I walked to college (Jordanhill - and was I glad I wasn't on school placement after a sleepless night) marvelling at the lives laid bare for all to see - and realising that lives had also been lost.

But today is no longer red on the map, and it is merely miserable - dark, cold, sleety. A day, in fact, to waste a little time bamboozling your brain, or your eyes, or whatever combination of the two results in seeing your skin crawl after thirty seconds of staring at the computer screen. You can have a bash here, at eChalk optical illusions - I found the spiral pinwheel illusion the most disturbing, and I didn't try the gears one that threatens to make you feel sick - too easy, in my case.

As for me, I feel the need to revisit the game I played obsessively throughout my last year of teaching. It used to impress my S-grade boys when I asked for tips; my street-cred was sky-high. As too many of my readership are not 15 year old boys, however, and as the game itself is pretty old-hat nowadays, I will refrain from confessing any more. Guess away, kiddies!

Update: I've just found out that the storm in '68 fell on Sunday night, 15 January - so the equivalent of today, really. How satisfying.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Take action

This jolly little map indicates that we're having interesting weather. In fact, the red - which the astute will notice extends over the homeland of this blog - carries the caption "Take action" on the Met Office site I referred to yesterday. I've never actually seen the red over our neck of the woods since I started using the site, and was sufficiently intrigued to check its recommendations. They're actually pretty basic, to do with tying down the garden, putting the car indoors and not leaving your bed under a shoogly old chimney stack. (And if you're wondering: the last instruction is the least tampered with by my attempt at whimsical paraphrase)

What it doesn't warn you of is the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning or insanity induced by the shrieking of the CO alarm. A sudden down-draught from the chimney obviously caused a blow-back of gas-fire fumes; this particular chimney has always been subject to strange currents of air and used to fill the room with smoke in the old days. We've solved the insanity problem by removing the alarm to the hall and we've dispersed the fumes by opening a window - even though that is one of the "don't"s in the Met Office list.

There are compensations, however: I had a jolly time watching cars vanishing under the waves on the shore road at high tide, and noting that not only had someone left a white van parked on the seaward side of the road but also there were people obviously sitting in their parked cars with the lights on enjoying the thrills. I imagine they don't think of all the stones cast up by the waves.

Now it's dark, and we can't see much. The wind has fallen strangely silent in a way I find ominous; I fear it may be a case of reculer pour mieux sauter or something more scientific like the eye of the storm, for more and worse is promised. When I was a child in Glasgow, all I worried about was the possibility of being brained by flying slates off the tenements of Hyndland and Broomhill or the fanlight at the top of the close where we lived being shattered by a chimney pot, but these worries actually existed more in the minds of my parents. I found it exhilarating. Now I know that the worst storms wait till midnight to terrorise us and wreck our sleep, having first silenced the telly so that we have nothing else to think about.

I shall go out in the lull and tie down the garden. Or something.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The gloom has descended again. The rain has returned, and the wind is already driving the sea over the prom in great white flourishes. According to the excellent Met Office site the weekend is going to be fiercely windy, though apparently not unremittingly wet. And just at this time of day, just as darkness (as distinct from grey miserableness) falls, I'm aware of the power of dusk to evoke memories, emotions.

Larkin knew all about that - the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening -
in his poem The Old Fools; I used to enjoy awakening that realisation in the minds of Higher English students and seeing the lights come on as they made it their own. And I think of the bleakness of the time just before the evening meal in hospital, and how I wept when my no. 1 son left at the end of hospital visiting time the day before no. 2 son was born and I stood looking at the dark road as the car disappeared and felt completely bereft. There's something about the dying of the day which speaks to us of the final dying of the light, and the telly's not yet assumed its cheerful dominance of the evening and the book has been set aside to save some of it for later (oh, the horror of having nothing to read!) ... enough.

Usually these moments are combatted in my life by physical activity - the walk regardless of the weather, the tea with a friend at the end of a hike. But today I have swum vigorously before spending the morning in mental activity. Surely enough to keep me going? I shall think instead about a question which came up as we discussed the sermons latent in a set of lectionary readings. (Not a current set - Year C, if you're wondering). For it's a fact that as often as not the gospel rakes up a current issue, and for an amateur preacher (for want of a better expression) that's dangerous territory. If you follow this blog, you'll understand when I say that Jesus' refusal to let his followers call down fire on a Samaritan village that wouldn't receive them made me think of the the current situation in Palestine. So I'm looking forward to the session where we discuss how we deal with the bee in the bonnet that starts to buzz in response to the Gospel.

It's almost dark now, and I can forget the weather for 15 hours. And in the dark, there will be no bombers, no flares, no sirens, no death from the skies. What's a spot of rain?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oil for life

I'm halfway through the last bottle - I had six - of some of the best olive oil I've ever used. Last night I transformed mashed potato with a good slug of it; I use it in cooking , salad dressing and on bread just because I love it. Best of all at this time, though, is the thought that in indulging my tastebuds I'm helping Palestinian farmers - and the reflection that when I'm enjoying a civilised dinner party while Palestinians are being bombed and shelled I'm at least identifying in a tiny way with their need to own their own land, their own lives.

So now I'm thinking of the next step. My six bottles of Zaytoun olive oil came through the initiative of a Cursillo member, who placed a bulk order in the hope that people would buy it. She may do this again - but the event at which it is sold isn't till May and I'm about to run out. So I may do the same - buy a case or two and see if people want a share. In the meantime, though, this is my recommendation to any blethers-reading foodies: the site is here and you can download an order form. And if you buy it, you'll feel good in all sorts of ways.

Plug over. Go and take a look.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sliding down the news

I couldn't help noticing that on tonight's news (Channel 4, 7pm) the attacks on Gaza weren't mentioned till 7.25pm - almost halfway into the hour-long programme. Before it came up we had news about the shocking death of a child, news about a murder enquiry - horrific items in their own right. But what is happening in Gaza is horrific to the power of over 900 - the number killed so far in the Israeli attacks. Does compassion fatigue set in? Do we become bored with the nightly repetition of horrors?

I can recall the nightly visits to the Vietnam war in the 70s. A black-and-white war, for we didn't at that time have colour telly. And it didn't seem particularly relevant to us in Scotland - more like a movie. But I know from American friends how potent that war was, how worrying for families with sons, how difficult. We cannot let this atrocious situation in Gaza slip off our radar. If we are shocked and saddened by the brutal death of a toddler in England then we much remain shocked and saddened by the terrified children of Gaza and the tiny bundles lying among the corpses. And as long as Gaza burns we should see it before we turn away to do something else.

You can read a personal take on events at Alive in Gaza.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tea time

On another day of Stygian gloom I'm determined to be cheerful. So rather than tell you that the ferries are off again, or that the valley gutter between the nave and the chapel at the back of the church is dripping water onto the floor again, or that we were too fearful of the wet slippy wooden stairs to put the Magi back in their bubble-wrap-filled chest, or any of the other doom-laden snippets that make for your average January-in-the-west-of-Scotland blog post, I'm going to tell you all about the new tea room we discovered on our pleasant day out in Glasgow last week.

Brewhaha has opened in the lowest floor of Buchanan Galleries - tucked in at right angles to Costa Coffee at the foot of the escalators. There we had a pot of the wonderful Formosa Fine Oolong tea, described in their "teacher" menu as "light, smooth, and with a wonderful flowery fragrance ... a tea for moments of quiet contemplation and calm." And there we sat, on candy-striped seats surrounded by the pale pinks and greens which so contrasted with the dusk of blue-lit Buchanan Street, and contemplated calmly before tackling the evening rush hour.

As my nearest and dearest know, I am a complete tea snob. To find a tearoom which caters, it seems, for moi at my most demanding is a joy as unexpected as it is cheering. And to discover that this is a Scottish company, and that they also make delicious sandwiches, is even better. As for the tea? They sell 13 black teas, 3 varieties of Oolong, 4 green teas, 3 white teas, 7 "infusions" - peppermint et al - and 8 so-called "Super Teas", one of which is described as Anti-aging tea. It seems to consist largely of sea buckthorn berries, which to my certain knowledge smell horrid and are avoided by birds.

But maybe I should try some...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sic transit dies ...

I'm glad today has darkened into evening - it's barely been more than crepuscular all day and after the fun of watching the waves drown the rash cars venturing along the front this morning (above) the tide receded and I had to work. And after hours at the computer writing the minutes of a meeting in November - I should'a done them immediately - I was left with a numb behind and a numb brain. I feel marginally better after a walk in the dark - it's still quite dramatic out there, with the shingle roaring under each breaker.

And I've finished my book. The Private Patient by P.D. James has been a companion for the past week or so, in the quieter aftermath of the Christmas socialising, and I feel the regret that I always feel by the time the relationship comes to an end. There are hints towards the end of the novel that Adam Dalgliesh wonders if this case will be his last as he moves into a new phase in his life; I wonder if the author herself wonders how many more novels she will write.

This one has all the hallmarks of a successful mystery - the closed environment, the limited cast, the revelation of past complications and red herrings. But more than any of these I relish the depth of characterisation of the regulars - Dalgliesh the poet-detective, Kate his number two - which is sketched in with economy and a light touch. And I enjoy reading a book where I don't have to worry about infelicities of style or syntax: James is in full control of both.

Actually, the euphoria of the found music has made today bearable despite weather, minutes and THE END - heaven only knows what it'd have been like if we'd still been searching.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Encouraging - and plain stupid

A good moment - and a frustrating few days. The good moment came yesterday, in Glasgow, chatting with a cheerful bunch of pro-Palestine activists in Buchanan Street. They were selling small artefacts - bracelets, pins and so on - and sending the money they collected to a hospital in Gaza. One of them proudly showed me the receipt for their last donation - thousands of pounds - and the stuffed collecting tin with the day's takings. "Glasgow's been great" she told me. Some of them had been to Palestine as volunteers, and one of them, a woman in her 60s, looked familiar from way back in my CND days. I left them feeling slightly better about the world.

And the frustration? I've lost my music folder. Laid aside before the Advent Carol concert, so that I didn't inadvertently take out Fields of Gold when I had to sing In the deep midwinter, it has vanished. Neither myself nor Mr B (who took out the Advent music and put it together for me) has the slightest recollection of where it might be. We've searched bookcases, peered down the back of bookcases (thank goodness it wasn't there), clambered to the loft about ten times. I even spent a chilly fifteen minutes this evening in the church, putting on all the lights to peer under choir stalls and in dank recesses below the organ. I've phoned Mrs Heathbank as her music bag is identical to mine: no joy. We've found the toys we had mislaid in the holidays when they were needed (they were stupidly in the chest on which the Christmas tree was standing and emerged when we took it down) and realised that it really is time to do something about the loft. But there is no sign of my music.

It's in a red plastic folder. It's full of music, all carefully annotated. I am bereft. If it reads this ...stop. I'm being silly. But that's what happens when you fear for your marbles.

Now - who is it you pray to when you've lost something?

Update: ten minutes after I wrote the above, I found it. It was in my filing drawer, quite sensibly, but had slid down because of the weight of music in it. Prayer answered?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Palestine, Israel and the Just War theory

How do we cope with the images coming from Gaza? I've just been looking at the guardian's photo gallery, where there is a striking photo of a woman weeping for 10 relatives killed in the Israeli air strike on the UN school yesterday. I cannot imagine how it must feel, such desolation. What is the reaction after the storm of grief? How are we to react?

The arithmetic is totally skewed: hundreds of dead compared to a handful of Israelis. The Palestinians have already lost so much at the hands of Israel, including a country where they were already living. Now they are herded into the margins, in a grim parody of Jewish ghettos and South African apartheid, cut off from the land their fathers farmed by walls and barbed wire. Does that weeping woman curse Hamas for firing the rockets that provoked this response? Or does she feel - if she has any feeling left - that this is the only possible thing to do in protest? But how do the relatives of the handful of dead Israelis feel? Obviously it's no better knowing that you're one of only half a dozen if it's your brother who is dead - so do they cheer on the troops who so outnmber the "insurgents" they are determined to crush? I am reminded of the days when, in my role as a CND activist, I spoke at the RCC in Edinburgh. In these days, much was made of the "Just War" theory. We were talking nukes then, but surely this is not a just war by any standards - let alone that of proportionate response.

And why do the rest of us seem to be letting this happen? We look at these dead children and wailing mourners, we see the abject poverty of the environment which is now being pounded to rubble, we watch doctors working in squalor to save lives as the drugs run out. A westernised power which we helped to plank in the middle of Palestine seems to have learned the worst possible lessons from its people's history and looks as if it is trying to eliminate the original inhabitants. What failure of imagination drives their leaders? These articulate and terrifying Israelis with American accents - what business have they there?

Daniel Barenboim, writing in the guardian last week, said this:
Palestinian violence torments Israelis and does not serve the Palestinian cause; Israeli retaliation is inhuman, immoral, and does not guarantee security. The destinies of the two peoples are inextricably linked, obliging them to live side by side. They have to decide if they want to make of this a blessing or a curse.

But until there is real justice for the wretched people of Palestine, it is hard to see how they can see any blessing in the proximity of their neighbours.

Epiphany in its place

We celebrated The Epiphany tonight. And yes, we were celebrating the feast on its proper day rather than on Sunday morning - because of the incense. Part of me, I suppose, was incensed because of this - resentful at not being able to have the service on the Sunday - but I was mistaken. Tonight's Eucharist, celebrated in the very early evening, was special in the same way that the Christmas Midnight Mass was special.

Even before the service began, the high ceiling of the nave was beginning to appear hazy with the smoke drifting through from the sacristy. The darkness outside created the expectancy and the lack of the ordinary which seemed fitting for such a day - the day in which we picture the extraordinary visit of the Magi to a very ordinary young woman who had become the god-bearer. This day, the culmination of the strange and wonderful events of Jesus' birth, must have have seemed totally strange to her, and that strangeness drifted into the church tonight as we waited.

In the event, those of us who were there felt special. It was beautiful, mysterious and powerful as we prayed for the country where it all began. I found myself glad that we had saved the feast for its proper day. And we all found ourselves applauding Mr B for his final organ piece - a wonderful evocation of the strange procession over the desert, harness bells and all.

A cold coming we had of it? Yes, but it was worth it!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Toothless blog post

I've been exercised over the past couple of days by the idea that a blog that is anything other than anodyne could prevent someone from getting a job - even a blog which is written pseudonymously (is that a word?) I know that theoretically I have all the freedom in the world to write exactly what I please, as I have nothing to lose by it - no job, no prospects, nothing. But how free am I?

Every blogger knows that if they are at all successful someone will read their stuff. So I visualise a readership and write with them in mind. Sometimes I might write specifically so that someone will read what I say and be affected by it in some way; other times I realise I'm avoiding a topic because it'd open a can of worms which I can't be bothered putting back. I wouldn't be lying or exaggerating either - just writing about something which is on my mind. (Like intercessory public prayer, f'rinstance. Really.)

But am I guilty of moral cowardice when I keep quiet? Has living in a smallish community sapped my will? (I feel a bit like Hamlet here: who calls me coward? breaks my pate across?) There was a time when I demonstrated at the Holy Loch, lay down in the road, sang at policemen, went to court as a witness, appeared on telly and radio and spoke my mind - and then suffered the consequences. Golly. I could have had such a good time with my blog then. Back then our most sophisticated form of communication was a telephone tree. But then I didn't stop to think about it - the sight of the Poseidon subs in our loch was enough.

That might be it. Some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th'event. Shakespeare knew a thing or two. But I'd like to put the question to the bloggers (and lurkers) who read this: if you knew that what you wrote was likely to inflame prejudice in your employers, would you desist? Do you restrain yourself for that reason? Should we always think twice before we hit 'publish'?

And yes: I've just written yet another toothless post when really I might want to bite. Grr.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Moving the furniture

Being in church can do things to people. I used to think that the very need to sit still and silent in a loo-less building was guaranteed to bring on an attack of cramp, a coughing fit or a bout of incontinence. It was almost an excuse not to go. All this was a long time ago, I remember - except that today I had the tickly cough. It began towards the end of the Gospel and by the sermon was threatening the full, eye-ball-popping, knicker-wetting Monty. I extricated myself from my customary front pew and left to cough - apparently still audibly - in the porch.

When it was over, I crept back in and sat in the pew immediately opposite the door. No-one in the know ever sits as far back as this - the draught is appalling, you're well behind the infra-red overhead heaters and the temperature is about ten degrees lower than at the front. But it was fascinating. I was struck by how beautiful the church looked, how tall, how simple. I was moved by the sight of the congregation - twenty today - gathered together, all intently listening. I felt at once an outsider and a matriarch, somehow responsible for this little group. And I too listened - to a sermon about rearranging the metaphorical furniture of our lives to make space for prayer and noticing. And before I crept back into the relative warmth for the Creed, I thought about changing viewpoints and the insights given by a new look at life.

Jolly chilly, though.

NB - there's a wee literary reference in there. Usual virtual reward.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Waking at four to soundless dark ... well, not exactly. It was seven and the sky had whispers of light in it. Mustn't let my enthusiasm for Larkin obscure the facts. Fact is, I woke and found myself reviewing the past two weeks with the awful clarity that dawn brings - and this is what, unclouded by warm fuzzy feelings or distorted by immediacy, came out:

The miracle of our having decided to invite our eight-voice choir to join us for the carol service in a year when so many of the home-grown singers were under par - and the joy that so many people came to hear them on a day when several of our own congregation didn't.

The enjoyment of the church decorating day, including the therapy (for me) of polishing the silver.

The realisation that as far as I'm concerned Advent is more productive than Christmas - a variant on the travelling hopefully idea?

The disappointment that the nave lights were left on at the Midnight Mass. Despite the fact that we were all holding candles, the relentlessly bleak lights killed any magic for most of us in the pews, and I was distracted right up to the Peace by wondering if someone had just forgotten to put them off. Big mistake. Probably someone complained about darkness.

This last thought so irritated me that I got up well before it was light. I'm glad now, as it's a glorious morning and I may well go out. Feel better now ...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Cracking Ne'erday

Loch Eck, approaching Bernice
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've cracked it. After a lifetime of end-of-year blues, I think I've achieved the painless transition to 2009. I think the beastly combination of nostalgia and regret at the passing of Christmas first hit me when I began to keep a diary - there's nothing like writing the final entry to remind you that that's another year gone - at the age of ten. In my day I have attempted to kid myself that I could be jolly on Hogmanay, but in my Glasgow youth this involved bleak expeditions to find friends who lived elsewhere in the city, or, later, the teetering walk home from some party over frosty streets with the horrid knowledge that one was beginning to feel really bad.

The young baby years were no better, as they tended to involve merely "seeing the year in" over the increasingly dire telly and heading bedwards immediately afterwards. Then, and in the years to follow, there was the relentless approach of the school term, which sometimes began as early as January 3rd, depending on which day of the week Ne'erday fell. Whatever I was doing - wife of a teacher, mother of pupils, a teacher myself - this was the worst and darkest time, when the early-morning struggle to rise in the chilly dark seemed more of a nightmare than ever.

But enough of these dark rememberings. This year worked. The secret? Tidy the house after your Christmas visitors, noting as you do so that your house is actually quite a decent size after all. Shop early and casually, knowing that the close friends who are joining you for dinner on Hogmanay are bringing the main course and a Christmas pudding with them. Waste some of the afternoon on the computer, and on reading the book you've been too knackered to read in the past two weeks. Have a lovely relaxed evening with the aforementioned friends, enjoying the fact that the four of you have made a little effort to scrub up a bit. Eat heartily, so that the drink you consume makes you mellow but not drunk. Talk about the things that really interest you all - so that you don't have to witter small talk till the bells. At 11.45pm, put on the telly and wonder why BBC Scotland seem to find it so hard to get any decent singers and why the show has the rather desperate air of an impromptu gathering or a wedding without the bride - and learn that Jackie Bird has had her teeth whitened. (This is hearsay - blame the Best Pal) At midnight, kiss each other heartily, drink champagne and admire the Edinburgh fireworks, before switching to Jools Holland and becoming ever so slightly raucous. When your pals leave before 1am, put out any light that might tempt a first-footer, leave Mr B to do the washing-up, and head for bed with your book.

All this leaves you with a clear head on Ne'erday, able to enjoy the brilliant sunshine of a two-hour walk above Loch Eck - see photo - returning ravenous to eat bread and cheese and get your iMac wired to the BT hub so that you don't have to put up with the erratic wireless connection any more. This involves the return of Rob, who was your guest last night and who spent part of the evening persuading you to let him bring a long ethernet cable he just happened to have lying around, and results in the joyously speedy connection of my dreams.

There. No nostalgia, no maudlin maunderings, no hangover. I've had a good day and later there are two episodes of Eastenders to remind me of how lucky I am. But first I think I might eat again ...