Friday, May 29, 2009

The problem of ...

Been a bit obsessed by teeth recently, largely because mine have seen better days and are beginning to complain about my treatment of them. Mistaking an olive stone for a sultana while eating an interesting salad in Tenerife was only one of the mistakes for which I am now paying - both in trauma and, I suspect, in cash.

But it was while I was reclining, somewhat alarmingly, with my head lower than my feet at the behest of the charming 16-year-old who came to the rescue during today's emergency dental appointment, that I began to consider once more the age-old problem. Not, as you might think, the problem of pain, for by this time I'd had so many injections that my entire face felt as if it belonged to someone else. No, the perennial problem in this position - head back, mouth agape and full of implements and gloved fingers - is the problem of spit.

No matter how assiduous the dental nurse with her wee hoover-thingy, the moment she has to turn away to mix minute quantities of some tooth-filling substance I feel that I will shortly drown in spit. The front of my mouth may feel like a dust-bowl, but somewhere around the memories of tonsils there is a sudden rush of saliva - and I have to swallow. Only I daren't, because I have become convinced that stuck down there under my tongue is a lump of filling/tooth/debris which to swallow would mean a slow death. But swallow I must - there is a kind of convulsion, a gagging sensation .... oh no....choking ...

And the twelve-year-old (he's younger by the minute, this one) asks brightly: You all right? And continues blithely to fill, scrape, buff, do unimaginable things with tiny bits of cotton wool (apparently I have some stuck inside my tooth right now) as I make a huge effort to relax and think of the absurd Simpsons poster stuck to the ceiling above the chair. Surely the torment cannot last for ever.

I just wish this child genius had a better taste in music...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Been thinking some more about the Twittering Teacher. The Oban Times piece is so hysterical that the first reaction is still to laugh, to damn Argyll and Bute Council, and to carry on Twittering like mad. But if you read what this hapless teacher has twittered, you see why there was a stushie. Only thing is, it’s nothing to do with wasting time, indulging in nefarious online practices or anything else of that nature. No, it’s to do with her being just a bit silly.

Once upon a time I spoke to the Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church about blogging as a means of keeping people connected – you know the sort of thing. And the reigning comms supremo buttonholed me afterwards to pooh-pooh the whole blog thing because of its association, in his mind, with hapless American adolescents who dumped their every thought online and left it there. This was obviously not what sensible adults did.

Sadly, this teacher – who seems to be a PT – is really doing the American adolescent thing on the even speedier forum of Twitter. And instead of someone pointing out, quietly, that really she ought to be able to differentiate between what is suitable to share, and what is in fact hurtful or a matter for professional discretion, the council representatives go nuts and say
‘Social network sites are blocked in all schools as policy. Any member of staff found to have breached council policy will face appropriate disciplinary action.’
And so other professionals are told they can’t tweet for ideas, assistance or professional input, all because one teacher lost it. But she didn’t lose it as badly as the Oban Times suggests here:
There is also a shameful admission of a lack of interest in teaching.

‘Hello…where I am stuck in a maths cover lesson, at least the sun is shining.’ 10.01am May 11.

The teacher concerned would not be teaching at this point, but would be stuck in the classroom of an absent colleague, supervising a class in a subject not her own. There is little to do under these circumstances but watch the time pass and keep order – you don’t teach. It’s boring. And all the time you think of the work you’re not able to do because you’ve lost a precious non-contact period. People perhaps don’t know this – and maybe they should. Maybe it’s a good thing for the general public to know how a teacher’s day is really spent – so why not twitter this?

Back to blogs. There are still people who put unwise comments on their blogs, remarks thrown out carelessly which have the power to wound and offend. But blogs exist, and social networking sites exist, and there is no point in damning the technology because people are just as silly as they ever were. The Scottish Episcopal Church embraced blogging a couple of years ago, and this year the Synod will take a tentative look at Twitter – again, a couple of years after I first suggested it’d be a good way to keep track of one’s Bishop. And nothing Argyll and Bute council can say will make any difference.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When teacher's away ...

It’s such a relief, such a good feeling, when old friends find in each other what they need to make progress. Such a feeling as this morning’s, when three of us lay people who have to preach on a fairly regular basis met to break the back of the next three lay sermons – one apiece. We’d all done our homework, reading the Lectionary readings for all three days, thinking about the themes involved – thinking. Real thought. And so when we met we were able to listen constructively, to question, to demand a little more, and to appreciate one another.

It is a while since we’ve had to do this without the teacher, but we found ourselves slipping comfortably into our role, able to express appreciation of the work of another without constraint. And perhaps there will be less theological depth to our preaching, but for now this will suffice. The confidence gained by having one’s colleagues on board for an adventure is priceless – as were some of the jokes and rabbit holes down which we wandered.

I used to have a book at school called “Physics is fun”. I never found it so – but on today’s showing, theology is fun. A good thought as we await Pentecost.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Twittering Argyll and Bute

I've just picked up (via AB) on an interesting wee story set in my own local authority and involving some outrage over the Tweets of a teacher. You can read the original tale here. We have the obligatory angry parent who "knows half the pupils being commented on", and the local councillor who doesn't think teachers should be wasting their time on such sites - he thinks it is a drain on public resources.

If the reported tweets are representative of this teacher's crime, then the angry parent is either psychic or has been indulging in extensive research through her child. Maybe she spends her days on Twitter herself. And both she and the councillor seem to think that Tweeting takes up a lot of time, while anyone who knows anything about it is well aware it is the work of seconds to tweet a comment. No, what people don't like is the sudden insight into the life of a teacher, this well-paid paragon who always feels enthusiasm for even the most disruptive class, never blanches at the paperwork she has to fill out every time a child swears, never, ever complains about the lovely children whom the complaining parents have dispatched for the day and whose behaviour and work will always be the very best they can manage.

Teachers have always indulged in this sort of conversation, with each other, with friends, with anyone who cares to listen, on a bad day. This teacher's tweets seem not to name names, and to be, frankly, pretty bland - and two out of the four quoted were made outside school hours. What will Argyll and Bute do to the defiant ones who dare to tweet again? How wonderful if there were to be a deluge of @Argyll&Bute posts - the system might well grind to a halt, given past form.

Goodness, am I glad to be free. Are other councils run by such ignorant technophobes? I feel a Keatsian moment coming on: Tweet to the spirit ditties of no tone....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A guided journey

One of the lesser-known benefits of religious practice is to be found in Spiritual Direction. While many Anglicans know that this is something they would expect their priest to undertake, on the understanding that every priest needs someone to talk to about their own spiritual development, far fewer realise that the benefits of this practice are open to all, lay people as well as ordained. They are missing a great deal.

It's easy to assume that because you talk about matters of faith and practice to friends or fellow-members of your congregation that you don't need anything so esoteric or - to the inexperienced - so scary as one-to-one conversation with someone who would initially be a stranger, but this would be to miss the point. You cannot experience the full benefit of this exercise with someone who is involved with your ordinary day-to-day life, let alone a friend: there will be too many extraneous considerations - such as the maintaining of a relationship - to get in the way of honesty. And the benefits are incalculable, with the resultant self-knowledge and assistance with spiritual growth far beyond what is achieved by the more comfortable discussions with someone on your own patch.

This is where organisations such as Cursillo can be of great value. By laying strong emphasis on the benefits of direction and by providing assistance with finding a suitable and experienced director for those who wish one, Cursillo can take anyone interested past the initial and sometimes daunting stage of asking someone to join in a fascinating journey.

And it's a journey infinitely worth making.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A strange Resurrection

I've just finished reading The Resurrection of the Body by Maggie Hamand. It was sent to me by a friend whose recommendations I trust, but for a while I wondered why I was reading it. Beginning with an apparent murder on Good Friday, this short novel explores belief, incredulity and loss of faith in the course of investigating a mystery, and is written in the simple, direct style of someone recounting a story they have gone over so often that all artifice has gone.

I read the greater part of the book today, having reached the point where I couldn't bear not to know what the outcome would be. I had grown accustomed to the dry style of narrative, to the short chapters with their artless titles. And now that it's done I find myself wishing it wasn't, and wanting to go on - except that the end of this story can't be written in twentieth-century terms. For how would we cope with the Resurrection? Would we not all be like the first century sceptics who said the disciples had hidden the body of Christ to prove a point? In giving us this very ordinary Anglican priest with all his flaws and hangups, Hamand has given us the chance to look again at our own beliefs - and perhaps our own deepest needs as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Songs and a poem

I've posted a poem today, over at frankenstina. It's one I began on the bus home from France, and only today got down to deciphering the wobbly writing in my notebook.

I never thought I would find myself singing It's a long way to Tipperary but it seemed entirely appropriate when the time came, and the subsequent transition to the folk songs which are so much a part of our heritage came naturally. The Braes of Killiecrankie, one of my personal favourites, goes as well with the last of the sun in France as it does in Scotland, and I'm grateful to Max for knowing all the words!

Sunday, May 17, 2009


In Delville Wood
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I had to preach this morning. I was relatively unprepared, for I only learned about it last week, while I was in France - in the very heart of Delville Wood, to be precise. Not having a bible or lectionary with me, I wasn't in a position to do more than fret, briefly, and put all thought of sermons aside until I was home again. By the time I was on the coach driving through England, I knew I'd be preaching about my experiences in France, whatever the readings for the day.

In the event, the Gospel was ideal - greater love hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friend. What a gift. And because it was Morning Prayer, the response to the gospel reading: Death is swallowed up in victory. So for once I didn't write a sermon. A page of bullet points served to remind me of the order in which I wanted to arrange my thoughts, and a poem I'd just written to finish off with. And from the moment I stood up and looked at my hearers I felt that this was what I needed to do on this day.

I spoke of the question which had troubled many of us as we looked at the inscriptions at the foot of the gravestones: where was God in all this? For on every stone where a soldier was named, there was this additional line supplied by his family at a cost of 31/2d per letter, to a maximum of 60 letters. On the stones of the countless unknown soldiers were the words "Known unto God", but on the others? Not cries of anguish and loss, but words of hope and faith and belief.

And I spoke of the lack of preparedness on the part of these soldiers - for who could be adequately prepared to walk uphill, carrying a 60lb pack and rifle, slowly, into a hail of machine-gun bullets? To watch the first rank of their comrades fall and then hear the whistle and go over the top to share their fate? Why did they do this?

I recalled the title of a book I saw in a museum shop: You can't shoot a man with a cold. This chimed so wonderfully with the thoughts I'd been having, the notion that just as it seemed important to feel well to go on holiday, to cope with the rigours of travel, so it would be important to feel in top form to fight in the trenches - which of course the soldiers emphatically did not. They were cold, wet, muddy, suffering from trench foot and diarrhoea, with no respite at the end of the day if they survived - just more of the same. Not in a fit state to die, really.

And it came back to the inevitability of God's love, in which our lack of preparedness makes no difference. No matter what circumstances distract us or make us feel unworthy, no matter how unready to face God we may feel, God's love is constant. Nothing we can do will change it.

Written like that, it looks bald and abrupt, and part of me wishes I had a written copy somewhere. But I couldn't have read this sermon; it needed to be spontaneous and alive. I'm glad that despite all the distractions and metaphorical minefields I didn't back out of delivering it, and I'm humbled by the response from my listeners.

And at least one of them thought my poem was by someone well-known!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Officers' Billet

Interior decoration
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
An integral part of our visit to the Somme was our billet. Yes, that's what we called it. Don't snigger. Look at the picture. The whole place was redolent of the Great War, from the rifle, complete with fixed bayonet, hanging ready from a beam to the recruiting posters on the bedroom walls (I dropped off to sleep under "Women of Britain say go!") It did occur to me that if any of my companions were to have a bad dream after all our battlefield visits it might make for an interesting scenario. Sleepwalker with bayonet wipes out party of pensioners - that sort of thing.

The rooms were basic, with just about enough room to swing a very short-tailed cat. Ours didn't have any en-suite frills, but we had the advantage of being next door to the shower-room/WC. Another room had en-suite facilities, while yet another - under the roof - had a basin and WC but no shower. Downstairs, at the back of the kitchen (very French) there was a loo and shower - and a wonderfully hot towel rail. It also had a mouse. We sang as we entered, to give it time to vamoose.

Our bedroom door had warped, so that closing it required either great effort or a loud slam. After winning a prize for the loudest door-slam-in-the-middle-of-the-night I made Mr B get up and shut the door quietly after a 2am expedition. He wasn't very pleased. But we had to shut the door because of the strange smell which emanated from the cellar and seemed to be related to the central heating.

And then there were the cockerels. One night, having eaten too much cheese (and croissant, and butter, to say nothing of the smoked eel and the rabbit with prunes and a goat's cheese salad at lunchtime) I was awake at 2am. And that is when the most thuggish cockerel decided to start. His raucous crowing went on till 7am, and I heard every last tonsil-tearing moment (do cockerels have tonsils?) Several inebriated plans were hatched to do away with these birds, but they live still, as does their less noisy but still irritating friend along the road.

Seriously, though, Snowden House in Longueval was great. The atmosphere was terrific and we loved it - especially the night we lit the log fire and the candles and sat talking for hours. The wisteria at the back door was in full bloom, and in the garden to the front there was an extraordinary pile of shell cases and lead shot, just sitting there. We were ten minutes' walk from Delville Wood, and at the crossroads there was a new Pipers' Memorial - stark reminders of the hellish battle that was fought just up the road. Somehow this mix of the lovely and the awful seemed just right for the trip we were part of.

On another note: I did in fact write a poem when we were there, but it's not going to appear for a bit. I'll flag it up when I'm ready.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Songs and Sacrifice

Cross of Sacrifice
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I find myself almost unable to start blogging about the Somme trip which has just ended. The emotions roused by contemplating the sheer numbers of dead, the ubiquity of the cemeteries - these contrast with memories of laughter, company and singing and my first reaction is to feel discomfiture. Where do I start? And then I reflect that the men who went into battle and died in their thousands sang those self-same songs, and that they enjoyed each other's company and laughed at the daft jokes of their pals, and I think: just start.

So this is where I begin, with the things which hit me first. The songs, for example. When I printed out the guide to the trip, complete with WW1 song words, I thought I'd never sing along on the bus. I couldn't imagine doing anything at once so naive and so insensitive. But I was wrong. For after walking through the rows of graves - the photo is of the first we saw, near Ypres - and travelling by coach through the map of the Western Front, it seemed somehow fitting to sing, to recall how the soldiers would keep their spirits up. And we raised the roof, that first night in the village of Longueval where ten of us were billeted.

That first evening, after dinner, four of us walked up the road to Delville Wood cemetery. The sun was setting, red behind the dark trees, and it became harder to read the inscriptions on the stones. But one of them caught my eye. Private G.A. Pain of the London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers, was 16 years old when he died on 19 September, 1916. He would be sitting his Highers right now - or maybe just his Standard Grades. He died in a battle for the wood which is described as one of the most hellish on the Somme, and I couldn't begin to imagine what reserves of courage he called on. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he simply realised that, once there, there was nothing else to do but go with his mates and last as long as he could.

It was dark by the time we walked back to the billet - and that seemed right.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Gordons' Dump

In the past two days we've visited so many sites on the Somme battlefield that my soul is saturated with sacrifice and words are inadequate. We have placed crosses on the edge of a huge mine crater and found the graves of men whose names we know. This scene is typical of all we journey through; in the middle distance you can see the small crescent of graves at Gordons' Dump, once an ammunition dump and now the grave of Gordon Highlanders who died nearby.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

At the billet

An unlikely company has assembled on the Front Line close to Delville Wood, on the Somme. We're about to go foraging for dinner, but meanwhile the sun is still warm and the scent from the wisteria is intoxicating. A la prochaine!

Monday, May 04, 2009

Passionate pedants

A wee discussion on pedantry vs passion almost got going t'other day but was stifled by circumstances. I'm frequently accused of pedantry in language, though my dear ami Fr Kenny enjoyed coming the pedant over my choice of the phrase 'a big ask' in a recent public utterance of mine. But in a way that moment illustrated something. Both the reverend father and myself knew what we were about in that moment, and that was right and proper in two educated people. Both of us are perfectly capable of linguistic accuracy, and both of us enjoy the humour (to us, anyway) of straying from the path.

As an English teacher it's been my job to be accurate, to be a role model for my students and to correct their errors - to reassure them that once they knew when to use "I" and when "me" they should stick to it even if their parents tried to correct them. (This has happened - several times.) I've also been able to show them how it's fine to begin a sentence with "But" if they know why their early Primary teachers told them not to. So you could say that my passion* is for the pedantry that ensures accurate English, and for the clarity of expression that accuracy can bring. Someone else might have a passion for singing in tune - and might be accused of being over-pernickity for insisting on it.

I just hope the next doctor I really need is keen on accuracy too ...

*Actually I have several passions. We'll not go into that, shall we?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Dog Whisperer in Argyll

It’s official. I am a secret Dog Whisperer. I was reading in yesterday’s Guardian about the Dog Whisperer beloved of Sky watchers and owners of troublesome pooches – Cesar Millan, who has made his fortune changing the behaviour of dogs who drive their owners nuts. And there they were: his Top Training Tips.

A brief summary will give you an idea. You begin with no touch, no talk, no eye-contact with the dog. This, apparently, honours the canine way of getting acquainted.
[I never look at dogs. I pretend they're not there. Even ones I know well]

You mustn’t begin a relationship looking for a soulmate. Apparently this shows if you give the animal a name too soon.
[That's easy. I would never own a dog, so other people have to call them names. I like human soulmates, myself]

You mustn’t attempt to humanise the dog. It’s a dog. It won’t listen to you.
[Golly, do they listen to me. I just say "no" and they listen. Great]

Doggy fulfilment is based on exercise, discipline and affection – in that order. Too many dog owners feel that if they practise the authority figure bit then their dog won’t love them. This, apparently, is all wrong.
[The dogs I practise my skills on with greatest regularity appear to love me, despite my best efforts. I hadn't read this stuff when I met them]

You shouldn’t approach a dog on first meeting. You wait. Apparently this makes the dog respect and trust you.
[I never, ever make up to a dog. It's a pity they're not human, as they don't reciprocate]

You mustn’t talk up a walk before you go. The walk is, apparently, about bonding and creating a pack experience, not going to Disneyland.
[And did you know that dogs can understand spelling? Even W-A-L-K sends them into paroxysms of awfulness]

So there you are. I've been a dog training expert for years and not known it. But you know, it does work, all this stuff. Mrs H's dogs charge to the door, barking madly, see it's me and skid to a halt. They never, ever jump up on me. I just need to work out how to get them to avoid me altogether when we're indoors ... Anyone?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sine qua non?

It’s interesting, in the wake of Ewan’s visit to S3 pupils at his old school, to consider what attributes are most desirable in different areas of work. For some professions/jobs/careers/vocations – take your pick – there are, of course, ‘givens’, like being literate if you think you might want to teach English - though I used to cringe when fellow English teachers mixed up their subjects and objects in a sentence involving personal pronouns. To say nothing of these careful souls who, hopelessly muddled as to why they are doing it, say “whomever” regardless of grammar simply because, I suppose, so few people ever get it right that they choose the harder option in a sort of blind faith.

And that brings me neatly to other apparently obvious attributes, for one would expect anyone going for ordination to the ministry/priesthood to have faith. Wouldn’t one? But what else besides? Education? Leadership qualities? Empathy? What other attributes make for an outstanding pastor – or even a good one? Are there particular qualities without which a ministry will fail? And is that something that can be said of other callings, such as teaching?

I suspect there are actually several answers to the above, but I’d love to hear what others think. There might even be a resurgence of the Mars Bars prize…