Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moving on?

We all have choices throughout our lives about staying or moving on. Perhaps the movement within society is one of the biggest defining marks of the way we live now, when families are separated by oceans, when grandparents are no longer part of the extended family, when childcare is a matter for professionals because family members aren’t available.

I’ve been thinking about the moving on angle: that moment when someone decides that they can no longer remain where they are, but for whatever reason must uproot themselves and take up a new job, or live in a bigger house, or – as I did, in a fit of pregnancy madness – go and live beside the sea.

There are jobs in which it seems to matter more when someone moves on, is promoted, or whatever. I well remember the sense of disbelief when my much-loved Primary 6 teacher, as Depute Head the only male teacher in my primary school, left before we became Primary 7 – for we could have expected to have him for the whole two years. Instead, he became Head Teacher of another school. I was bereft. How could he do this? Probably this is what happens in jobs where a close contact with your customers is involved – so who are we talking about here? Teachers, maybe your GP – though this is less likely – your trusted family solicitor, clergy.

It seems to me that in less people-orientated jobs your colleagues might feel a bit fed up at your going, and your boss might feel your loss if you’ve been a valuable member of her team, but in such circumstances it’s an even ball-park: everyone’s in the same game of making their career and most will be wishing they’d got your new job instead of you. But customers are pretty passive when it comes to the career moves of their teacher or their priest/minister/pastor, and as such feel helpless, betrayed even.

Even retiring can produce feelings of guilt (initially anyway) if you remain in the same community, and hear how your replacement is faring – or not. Somehow, we have to learn to live lightly with one another; not to become unduly dependent on someone who is, in the end, only doing a job. But we probably won’t. Why?

Because we’re human. Tough, isn’t it?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beauty from chaos

Ash Wednesday is drawing to a close, and the Lent blog, Beauty from Chaos, is alive once more. And as we prayed the Eucharistic prayer for the season of Lent this evening, I found myself welcoming the familiar phrase like an old friend. Beauty from chaos? Yes. Amen and amen.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New poem

If you haven't seen it already, there is a new poem about the visit to the crater below El Teide on frankenstina. It was an added bonus to the experience to have this poem beautifully read - at sight, and from my quirky handwriting - on our last evening by Chris, one of our leaders.

I've tried to convey something of the vastness which made me feel ant-like as I perched on La Fortaleza, one of the remaining original parts of the caldera wall, made of red basalt. I've borrowed an image from Eliot's "The Waste Land", and used it to suggest that the presence of a volcano is always an uneasy reminder of the forces over which we have no control.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A high point

Setting off
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This pic comes from a wonderful day spent high above the clouds which enveloped the coast near Puerto de la Cruz. The crater of Las Cañadas, below El Teide, is absolutely vast, and at 6,500' was quite snowy at the time of our visit. (We just missed a week of horrid weather, at the end of which El Teide was entirely white). The crater was formed around 300,000 years ago, but the last volcanic activity was only 200 years ago, when Pico Viejo erupted. We walked from the foot of the peak, past the volcanic cone of Montana de los Tomillos to Cañada de los Guancheros, a wide gravel plain. We then climbed to the summit of La Fortaleza on the crater rim of Las Cañadas, where we sat on the red rocks and fed little grey lizards which came flocking (slight hyperbole) like ducks in a pond for our crumbs. I also quoted a little Eliot - the literary among you might guess what. (Think red rocks rather than lizards) By this time my walking companions had become used to my eccentricities - I think.

By the end of the day I had bright red patches on the back of my calves (the only place not protected with sunscreen) - the sun was extremely fierce and the cool air meant that you didn't always remember that fact. Interestingly, the moment we moved into shade at the end of the walk, we felt chilled - goosebumps chilled.

This was the harder walk of the day; I was pleasantly surprised at the slightly less relentless pace than I had expected and at my own growing fitness. Pity I've spent the whole of this afternoon at the computer...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Black desert

Black desert
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
One of our most remarkable walks on Tenerife was through the area known as Las Arenas Negras, to the west of Puerto de la Cruz. The last major volcanic eruption here was in 1706, and the black ash over which we walked for much of the day sparkled in the sun and crunched under our feet like a million crushed Crunchie Bars. There are trees growing in places - you can see some wonderfully green little ones to the right of the photo, beyond the line of the Canal Vergara, a covered canal about the same width as a Madeiran levada. But around the central ash desert are forests which have been recently burned, and it was amazing to see how the new growth shoots out from the charred trunks, so that the trees resemble these hilariously disguised telegraph poles and communications masts that you see on the way to Perth.

If you're interested, there are more photos of this day on Flickr - just click through on the photo here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Follow my leader

The leaders
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Time to reflect, then, on the experience that is an HF holiday – a Classic Walking Holiday, as the organisation dubs it – in a foreign country. On the second evening, I was asked if I’d be doing this again, and I have to confess that at the time I wasn’t sure. However, by the end of the week I was amazed at what a successful recipe it is. I don’t know how much of that was because of the specific group that had assembled in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, how much because of the leadership, how much because of the timetable and set arrangements, but I’d like to look further at these components.

The leadership is very important. Not only have they to ensure that they don’t lose anyone on a hike – whether by their wandering off or by someone falling off the path – but they also have to provide the atmosphere at the evening meetings and ensure that the hotel provides for meals to be taken together. This last was apparently a novel idea for the hotel we were in – they couldn’t understand how, having walked together all day, we could bear to sit together for dinner. But we did, and it is surely this that makes this kind of holiday such a good one for someone on their own: eating alone at the end of the day can be an isolating experience.

Our group was terrific. One of our new friends remarked early on how most HF groups seem to have a good number of Guardian readers in them, and whether or not that was the case we were certainly an interesting bunch, from different walks of life (pun, when spotted, left as felicitous), with plenty to say. The Scots came in for the customary lumping together, though it has to be said that our shared sense of humour made for pretty instant rapport and some of us felt that our accents stuck out like sore thumbs. And it also has to be said that anyone looking at the group would notice the general level of fitness and lack of surplus weight on this bunch of people (the oldest of whom was 79) tucking into the large and varied buffet.

The timetable felt breathless at first – we had to go for breakfast while it was still dark and the dawn chorus was giving it laldy – but we got used to it, managing to fit in visits to the pub down the road to have a sandwich made up before leaving on our bus at 9.15am to drive to our starting point. And we were occasionally breathless because of the need to meet up with the bus at the end of 8 miles or so; the ethos of the “A” walks seemed occasionally to concentrate on distance covered rather than on allowing for photography and reflection – a point worth considering when choosing which walk to go on. But one of the chief benefits was the removal of responsibility: we never had to make decisions about where to go, when to go, when to eat, how to find transport. In a way, it was like being a kid again, with all the hilarity of a fifteen-year-old on an outing – and that’s fun, when the rest of your life is decision-based.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather. I think we had three drops of rain on our last walk, and that was all. The sun was brilliant, especially at altitude, and the temperatures like a good Scottish summer. I loved it. And yes – I shall do it again.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Volcano day

Felt like making an appearance on my own blog for once. I'm perched on top of the crag on the rim of the caldera just before the break where the collapsing super volcano which preceded el Tiede poured a massive torrent of material into the sea. We were at 7,000 feet here, walking over patches of snow in brilliant sunshine, but far below us the coast had vanished under a sea of cloud. And as we drove down through that cloud, I thought of the sunloungers towel-bagged at breakfast-time by our German friends, and smiled. Just a little.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Day off

One of the joys of an activity holiday such as this is The Day Off. Today, in temperatures of 20 Celsius or so, we've been almost as idle as these delightful cats, who roam the gardens unhindered (presumably they are useful) and curl up on the lobby sofas in the evening. Tomorrow we shall be walking again - one can take only so much leisure!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Those in the know will recognise in the title of this post an exhortation to tired pilgrims who appeared to be flagging. In Spain. So it seems appropriate after an epic hike, at the high point of which I retained sufficient vigour to take this pic of el Teide with my phone as well as my Leica. I shall return to the exhortatory aspects of the day when I have a computer to work on; it's enough for now to say it was a great walk in brilliant sun and I have a pink nose. Cheers!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Beyond the Ice Age

There is warm sun! This pic from our balcony may look a tad grey, but we've spent the day walking the coast in got sun, watching the Atlantic swell pound the rocks and drinking beer beside one of Tenerife's black sandy beaches where surfers ignore the red flags and bodies bake in a manner I thought had gone out of fashion. Guess I've been on the wrong kind of holidays. Biggest laugh of the day came as we trooped past the hotel pool, in our boots, carrying supermarket bags full of stuff for picnics. 15 of us. The sunloungered Germans gaped. Maybe I thought they had a point.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Setting a President

Just before I left home, I finished reading Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama. I had to finish it because I was gripped in a way I don't normally associate with my reaction to biography, a genre which I tend to be able to read in parallel with a novel, on a pick up/put down basis. But this isn't your usual kind of biography - and not just because the writer has just become scarily powerful.

Two things struck me forcibly right from the start. The first was that this was a really good piece of writing: an effortless syntax; the easy integration of direct speech and dramatic narrative with recollection and reflection. The second was a profound relief that someone so reflective and self-aware, so luminously intelligent, had been elected to succeed Dubya, to whom I wouldn't apply any of the foregoing descriptions.

The book falls into three sections - Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his time in New York and Chicago, and his visit to Kenya. His family background is fascinatingly complicated, and when he is in Kenya meeting half-brothers and great-uncles, we realise why his take on race and colour is as sophisticated as it is. I found the Kenya experience strangely unsettling in its otherness, conveyed, it seemed to me, in a mood of passive acceptance: I had little sense of the American in Obama's reaction to the lives of his family, even when some family firewater renders a subsequent bus journey nightmarish.

The book ends with his marriage and a looking forward to a life lived in increasing self-knowledge. I shall read the second book later in the year, but right now it will be fascinating to watch this African American's presidency develop. Will he write about it?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snow dahn sahth

I'm having an adventure break. Not in Tenerife, yet, but in London, in the snow. We arrived last night clad, as it was pointed out, for a ski-ing holiday in boots and fleecy hats; I had thought that the gear might look a tad odd in South London, but no. Our first thrill came when the cabbie balked at the side roads and dropped us off to walk to the house - about half a mile of rutted, frozen snow, dragging a suitcase and struggling to maintain momentum every time we came to the slightest incline. We made it, though I felt as I used to after a couple of hours of sledging.

This morning we went out with the pram - for coffee, for exercise and fresh air, and for the shopping. McIntoshes are not easily deterred from the important things in life, especially the first two. The photos show us nearing the house. As it rained in the night, the car-tracks in the middle of the road have actualy thawed a little, and that is where we walked some of the time. But the pavements are still lethal - and there is no sign of grit on them. I recall the stushie in the Dunoon Observer after the sudden cold snap a the beginning of December - all these complaints that only one side of the road had gritted pavements and so on. Dunoon, I have news for you. London is ten, twenty - fifty times worse. This is like life in '50s Glasgow, when the snow lay till it turned to brown sugar and your slides stayed slippy for days on end.

As you can see, Mr B used the pram to overcome his horror of icy roads; I pretended I was in New York and found I got used to the motion after a bit. It feels a bit as I imagine Tai Chi does - all that controlled effort. But I'd hate to be one of these frail elderly folk I saw near the supermarket, with no-one to help them and no pram to hold onto. They looked terrified. Apparently it's just not worth it to have snowploughs and gritting lorries for such infrequent snow - but a grit bin on every corner? Surely.

Once again, Blogger is proving tricky to format - hence the widowed "I'm" above. Put it down to a visual representation of a break, please...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Strange interests

Regular readers of this blog will recall that, just over a week ago, I wrote a post about my own experiences of punishment and boredom in my own school days. I illustrated it with a photo of the belt/tawse/strap with which I was issued at the start of my teaching career in Glasgow. Quite apart from the comments which the post itself aroused, I'm fascinated by the traffic to the blog and to the photo itself on flickr. At the time of writing, the photo has been specifically viewed 70 times in the past week, and a trawl through the details of my stats shows that several links came from a search for belting which may be thoroughly educational in intent or may not.

Interesting, don'tcha think?

Monday, February 02, 2009


Today we celebrated Candlemas. As the north wind moaned outside the church, we put out all the lights and waited in the candlelight for the light which came to the aged Simeon as the Christ-child was presented in the temple. We were few in number - and that was all right. It was very, very cold - and that seemed right too. We sang wonderful hymns, ending with plainsong, and our breath rose like the incense-smoke in the cold air. It was both the end of the season of the Nativity and the prologue to the season of Lent, with all that we await then.

Our little church lacks so much - people, money, comfort, facilities - and yet on an evening such as this I wouldn't change for worlds. Music and silence, dark and light, with the smoke from the thurible swirling in the draughts round the few who came to wonder and to wait: these are the riches of our tradition, and we are blessed with them.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hymn coming good

After a week of negative postings, time for a cheerier word. Two really good moments in church this morning:

First, there was a moment or two of perfect silence - apart from the quiet organ music which seemed, miraculously, to have hushed even the most insistent noise-makers - before the service began, as if all there were holding their breath in anticipation. (Actually, there were two further minutes of silent prayer in mid-sermon, but this was somehow less miraculous)

And secondly, the first hymn. We sang Wesley's O for a thousand tongues to sing.... to the tune Lyngham - a tune I first sang 45 years ago at choral camp to these words:

There was an auld Seceder Cat,
And it was unco gray;
It brocht a moose into the hoose
Upon the Sabbath day:
They took it to the Sess-i-on,
Wha it rebukit sore,
And made it promise faithfully
To do the same no more.

We were told at the time that these words were used so that choirs practising on weekdays could learn their parts without singing holy words, and we bellowed them with glee. Thing about this tune is the absolute need for the men to com in strongly without the upper parts at the last line, which is repeated several times in imitation till it all comes triumphantly together at the end.

Now, in our wee church we are somewhat short of men, especially since the eighty-something tenor decided we didn't give him enough to do and took himself off to the kirk, so this hymn could have been a sad failure. But what was joyous was the way that having faltered somewhat in the first verse the men there got steam up by the second verse and by the end of the hymn were giving it laldy. And it was all the more joyous because it was so unexpected.

So there you are. A great tune, seriously old-fashioned, and words full of poetic diction and curtailed syllables (to fit the scansion) - but a great result. And suddenly I felt at one with the world and in complete accord with my fellow-worshippers. Guess I'm in the right church, huh?