Monday, August 31, 2009

Aleatoric Iggle Piggle

Hmm. Both hands
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
There's something wonderful about watching discovery happen. Catriona, who's just two, realised at the weekend that her grandad could play Iggle Piggle's tune (if you don't know, you've not been around young children recently) on the piano. She instantly recognised the tune and wanted to join in. After a few solo explorations of the keyboard came the joyous moment of the duet - Grandad playing around her tiny hands, while Catriona picked out notes for herself.

Actually the result was slightly unsettling, like the sound-track to a Hitchcock movie or The Turn of the Screw - the jaunty, familiar melody juxtaposed with the sudden sourness of dissonance. But she was enthralled.

Another great moment was inspired by the finale of the Cowal Games, as we watched the bands march down Argyll Street, each playing their own tunes. Catriona found the pipes too loud (they are, actually) but loved the drums. (I think her father has got to her). When she came home afterwards, she had the gallus walk of the tenor drummer to a T - and the hand movements as she drummed away at the air, laughing like a mad thing.

I guess I'll have to wait for the outcome: the grand piano on stage, or the draggled march behind the pipers ...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hydraulic civilisation?

Once upon a time - a year ago, almost exactly - I wrote a poem based on something we had done in church, something that involved filling the font with water, reeds and paper boats, something that reminded us of Moses. So why am I remembering this now?

Because I was interested to check dates. Because a couple of days ago we had that most rare of occurences: a baptism. Not of anyone from the neighbourhood, but of a delightful Irish baby for whom a small group of us sang suitable hymns and who was welcomed into the Christian family in a church far from her home. So far so lovely.

But in the frenzied preparations for this service - for these things are always a bit last-minute when there is no resident priest - I was suddenly aware that there was a sound of ... well, baling. Someone at the back of the church was baling water from the font. At the time I thought there had been crossed wires in the symbolism department - some inexperienced acolyte filling the font before the service began, perhaps. But no. Apparently when the acolyte in question lifted the big wooden lid from the font they found it full of slimy water and ... bits of grass. It was still the river Nile in there, and it took some nifty work with a jug before the service could take place.

I did tell someone, once, that the font was never used without an inner container. I did mention that the drainage was in place for its original position, in the Lady Chapel, but that there was a good chance of water in the font never leaving under the force of gravity. But there you are. I guess it'll be a wee bleach job the next time I'm martha-ing - and the odour of sanctity will be antiseptic rather than fragrant.

Never thought I'd see the day when I felt like a paragon of righteous domesticity ...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Of micro-tales and poems

The rain is back, the wind is blowing. Cowal Games weekend is upon us, and creativity seems to be returning as the swallows leave. Take a look over at Frying an Egg, where there is a new challenge to write a micro story; if you've not been before, the idea is to write a story of 100 words to a given opening, conclusion or idea; you can leave one in the Comments if you're not a regular. It's amazing how stimulating the extreme restriction in length can be - you have to suggest possibilities, hint at depth, conjure up a hinterland sometimes with a single word or by something you don't say. And then you find you have to be ruthless, losing 20 words without sacrificing essentials, and discover the result is better than before. Great!

And while you're at it, there's a new poem here on frankenstina: I wrote it actually during the Somme trip but was silly enough to enter it for something which required it not to be reproduced anywhere. Now it's free. I've already quoted it in its entirety during a sermon. If you enlarge the photo which accompanies it you can see the bluebells and the ridges of trenches among the trees to which the poem refers.

And as always, I wonder when - or if - I shall feel the need to write again!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Perfect music

Let's have an encore!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Must be the fact that after another drowned day the sun has come out - too late to do more than lift the spirits, but welcome for all that - which has me wanting to write something about the joyous concert I attended last week at the Edinburgh Festival. Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI performed music from the Golden Age of viol music, between 1500 & 1700, in a concert which fulfilled all my criteria for perfection. As the programme note put it,
the process of group music-making mimicked the construction of Renaissance societies: each player performed a distinct role in the consort, and the group came together to explore the range of human emotion and experience. The consort was thus a microcosm of society.
I found this fascinating, for to me the experience of the morning was total: as they played, there was nothing else - no thought, no physical awareness - that was outwith the music. It was only when they finished a set of pieces and the audience burst into applause that I realised I had a smile on my face, and I could no more have prevented that smile than I could have stopped listening. The music was played to perfection - the light, lifting rhythm, the total absorption of each player, the intonation, the wonderful flourishes of improvisation...

It doesn't work, putting it in words, any more than it does with any other total experience. But the kind of unity of purpose and spirit that was palpable at this concert is something we find only rarely - and something that we dream of finding again.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Compassion feels right

I had intended that I would post today about joyous things - about the best concert I've been to in years, about my grand-daughter's birthday party, about friendship and laughter and sharing and music. And maybe the subject which jumps up and gets in the way is also about something joyous, although to read today's papers you'd wonder: the release on compassionate grounds of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

I've felt right about this from the moment I first heard it mooted. And I still feel right about it, though I would suggest that my feeling now is less instinctive than my first reaction. Then, I was simply reacting - not thinking, not reasoning. And in discussion over the last few days I've had it suggested that I was incredibly naive. Maybe so. But now I realise I'm in good company. I'm proud, for instance, to read the response of the Scottish Bishops to the news. I'm glad to read Kelvin's sermon from today, and to see Rosemary's post on the message of the Gospels.

Today I was doing the intercessions at the morning Eucharist. As often, I prayed that the leaders of the world would act with compassion - only today, I felt that one leader of one small nation had done just that. And I wondered at how it was the business of any other nation to say that this was wrong - or how, in all conscience, they could think that it was other than right.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ancient Mariners

Turning tail
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Every now and again it becomes necessary to do something which doesn't involve church, gas men or loose floorboards. Something which removes you from the end of the phone and the ping of the computer. Yesterday was such a day. I'd planned it two weeks ago when I saw the ad: PS Waverley would be sailing on this one Tuesday from Tighnabruaich - about 45 minutes' drive from home - to Lochranza. At the time the sun was shining, and Lochranza beckoned. Is it not, after all, on my most favourite of islands? We would do this thing.

Yesterday the sun was deeply invisible, as was most of the view, swathed in layers of mist and sweeping rain. But I was firm in my resolve - and the forecast promised a drier spell in the afternoon. So, having bade farewell to the joiner (needed in the aftermath of The Gas), we sped off along the sick-making single-track road to Tighnabruaich, making the pier with time to spare. Waverley was slightly late, but not unreasonably so, and the usual trail of eccentrics and English visitors (42 all told, I overheard) trooped out the slimy pier and onto the deck.

There are in fact several joys to be found on Waverley for people like us. Our friend Alastair was on board - I'd have been surprised if he hadn't, as I've rarely gone aboard without meeting him. We enjoyed decent sandwiches and Earl Grey tea with the sea scooshing just below the window and sometimes through the cracks at the sides of it (it was an emergency exit. Heaven help us). Later we had a whisky in the bar and became quite jolly. But there was one big disappointment: we turned tail halfway across to Arran and headed back for the shelter of the Kyles of Bute. It was pretty bouncy, in an exhilarating sort of way, but apparently Lochranza pier would have been just too dodgy. People might have slipped and hurt themselves, or vanished overboard, or merely puked and panicked. We were not amused.

The picture shows the moment when we turned. The wind was quite strong, as you can see from the ensign, and a visit to the loo - situated just in front of (or behind? which way was I facing?) the paddle-box - an interesting experience as the water thudded and crashed just underneath one's bottom. The passage outside the loo, just where you go down to look at the engines, was intermittently deluged with sea coming in at an unusual place. There was a great sense of battling with the elements, but none of the apprehension associated, somehow, with being on a car ferry in such weather. It wasn't even as sick-making as a Channel ferry - because, presumably, I was on deck in the wind.

By the time we got home we were strangely tired and more than somewhat damp. But it sure made a change from the Gas.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dental impressions

Thought I'd share a few thoughts on - well, on dental crown preparation. As you do, if you've just sat through this procedure. For after a couple of false starts - nerve needing removed, antibiotics needed for minor infection - we at last got the mouth full of gunk that I'd been looking forward to the last time I visited my dentist. And that was the first surprise: the gunk used for taking impressions (alginate, I believe - like cheap non-dairy ice cream, it's made from kelp) was pink, not blue or bright green as in the past. And dolloped into its plastic frame, it was jolly cold, so that even my numbed jaw twangled unpleasantly as I sat gaping, trying not to gag. And what was with all these wee bits of warm wax? I'm sure I didn't have these pressed variously to my teeth on previous occasions.

And of course the temporary crown makes me feel like a hippo. Quite apart from the fact that it's strangely blobby in shape (it's a molar, top) and rubs my tongue horribly, I've been used to having very little tooth at all in that space for months. Now I have what might be a dod of chewing gum stuck there, and every morsel of food I eat adheres grimly to it. Apparently it has to be this size because the tooth - or what's left of it - is so comprehensively couped that it needs to be protected till the crown is ready. And that, O Best Beloved, won't be for a fortnight.

And the dentist? He remained irritatingly cheerful throughout. Bless his cotton scrubs.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mildew no more

I observe today how easy it is to slip into a condition of permanent chaos. There is even a kind of order to it - the big step over the displaced books, the path round the chairs moved to another room, the complete disregard of clothes hung in the unreachable wardrobe. However, we must return to some sort of normality after les travaux gaseuses (I know: I just made it up) and Mr B is ready to relay the rug which will transform the forlorn dining room. The mildew is gone from the suspect alcove which, long ago, housed the toy cupboard; the plaster-dust and underfloor debris have been swept up three times (though I have a notion to scatter tea-leaves in the time-honoured fashion) and the room in question is positively fragrant.

For now I shall resolutely ignore the boiler and miles of copper piping which have to be boxed in when our brilliant joiner can come round; I shall avert my eyes from the monstrous radiators with which Scottish Gas thought fit to equip us - believing, I think that we could thereby be weaned off our perfidious preference for a fire as our main source of heat - and compose my soul in patience against their removal. As I write, a senior SG person is on the phone to Mr B, and it is to be hoped that he will get the message that we don't want our living space dominated by huge white lumps of metal.

And I hope I don't live to tell you (quote coming up) that chaos is come again. Now, where did that come from?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Barry the Gas and the Andrews Sisters

Verily I live a strange life at times. At the moment, Barry the Gas is banging around in the back bedroom, trying to weave various pipes through a maze of joists and strangely random pieces of wood which appear to be holding up something, we know not what. We have to stick around to be available for emergency decisions and making cups of tea, for Barry doesn't take lunch breaks - he just works like a man possessed. (Actually I still think of him as GasBoy, but he's growing in my estimation). And next door, in the study, Mr B and I are practising Robin Orr's Jubilate in C, for a gig in Cumbrae Cathedral on Sunday.

So here's your picture for today. Barry bangs, drills and runs up and downstairs. The new flue spouts interesting gouts of steam. Mr B plays fistfuls of notes on the keyboard and I wail, somewhat discordantly, as I get to grips with enharmonic changes and awkward entries. My preferred m├ętier is music of the Renaissance, so the Orr does not come naturally, but I'm getting there. And his wee anthem They that put their trust in the Lord has a lovely alto part and I've got it sussed.

And now Mr B is playing the Andrews Sisters on his iMac and playing along with them - Chattanooga Choo-choo. That'll be for next session with the other choir. Truly, a varied life. The family that sings together .... (complete this sentence, if you like)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Higher English reappraised - again

Joanna Blythman had a sensible post in Sunday's Herald about the latest flurry in Higher English exam circles. Ever since the last change - when Higher Still appeared and drastically reduced what was actually externally assessed - I've felt the lack of any chance for students who wrote well to capitalise on their ability. It was never the same merely to be told by your teacher that you had reached the required standard to sit the exams - for that, in essence, was what happened. It somehow devalued the whole process to have the person who was teaching you say "yes, all right - you've made it". Even when the folio of the previous system was being prepared for external assessment, it was possible for the teacher to collude in raising the standard by direct interference, and it was presumably to remove that suspicion that the folio system was changed, but it still left the teacher with the say-so on what stage the candidate had reached and deprived the student of the stimulus to show off in an exam. Even after several years of retirement I have a couple of ringbinders filled with the excellent writing of past pupils - kept to encourage others to reach the same standard, or to give ideas to the faltering - and I can still remember the content of many of the essays.

Actually I'd like to go much further back. I agree with Neil who tweeted a wee while ago that he'd like to see the Report brought back to Higher English. This involved the student in assimilating several documents, including sometimes a graph, on a given topic, and then writing a cohesive report which conveyed the facts as contained in the material. Creative it was not. It called for understanding, organisation and the ability to write clearly and dispassionately - skills which are actually more useful to the majority of students than the ability to write a description of an emotion or analyse a metaphor. It gave the less creative, clever mathematician a chance to excel in one area of English, and had an obvious spin-off in other subjects like Modern Studies.

To me, Higher English recently has become less stimulating for pupils and teachers as texts became more prescriptive and the need to stop and examine halted the flow of the year. There seemed to be less space to develop the realisation that if you could do one area of analysis you could do any others, and that to write well was exciting and challenging and a cumulative process. I grant that the all-or-nothing exam at the end of the session struck terror into some pupils - but why is that such a bad thing? Are we all going to sail through life without such moments? Some chance.

I'd suggest that if - as Blythman suggests - there has been a dilution in the standard of text studied, and if - as I know is the case - too many teachers concentrate on the parrot-learning of the formula which will produce a passable critical essay at the expense of a real understanding of how a writer's craft works, then it's the training of teachers we need to look at. Maybe any teacher entrusted with teaching Higher needs to be regularly appraised and sent for retraining if he falls short of the standard our best pupils deserve. Maybe the time currently spent on internal assessment would be better spent exploring a new poem - pupils and teacher together, unprepared and excited by what they can find. On one-to-one discussion of how to bring writing alive, while others write on, absorbed in what they create. On showing teachers what is possible, and firing them with the need to share it. And then, after nine months, examining the results in the old-fashioned, open-ended way with the excitement of a real end-product to all this engagement and effort.

Bit like having a baby, really.

Monday, August 10, 2009


August. Warm days, the warmth of summer properly established, so that even grey days have no chill in them. Days for walking, picnics even. And memories of past Augusts, the Augusts of childhood, when picnics were ruined by ... flying ants.

When I was young, my family spent two months - the school summer holidays used to last the full eight weeks - in Arran. And I well remember the horror of picnics in sheltered glens, favoured spots which we'd already visited in July, suddenly made horrid by ants in our tea, ants on our sandwiches, ants swarming on a white t-shirt. I recall that I made a fuss, and was unpopular.

Today I was reminded of these picnics as we parked the car at the Arboretum. The moment we stopped, almost before we'd switched off the engine, the windscreen was crawling with winged ants. The air was thick with them, and we left. We found an airier spot where only a few creatures landed on us as we walked, and when we reached the gate into the wood at the end of it, we found it crawling with ants and turned back. And for the first time, I looked them up to find out why this annual horror occurred, and found this:
In late summer, male ants and large fertile female ants are produced. These ants have wings, and can fly. They will leave the nest, sometimes in large enough numbers to make a noticeable swarm, and will mate while flying. All the male ants and many of the female queens will die fairly quickly, but the queens which survive will set up new nests.
This explains a great deal while at the same time adding to the horror of it. But I take courage from that bit about them dying fairly quickly. I just wish they'd get on with it. Maybe I should take an August holiday in the middle of Glasgow?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Repeating itself

The Gas Man cometh. Well not tonight - at least I hope not tonight - but this week. And tomorrow his minions will deliver all the bits necessary for the heating system I've succumbed to, after all these years of heroic resistance. Apparently you can't get the really good boilers without a few radiators, and we need a better boiler because the current one, all of five years old, keeps dying with a nasty burny smell. Apparently a circuit board overheats - a design issue.

So we've spent quite some time today wrecking bits of our house, so that The Gas Man doesn't have to. It is now, depending on where you are, echoing and bleak or crammed and untidy. But the thing that interests me most this evening is to look back to this post from the very start of my blogging career almost four years ago, and reflect that then too I was thinking about Gas Men. I can hardly believe I've been blogging for so long, and wonder to see what I talked about in those days before anyone was reading it. But I seem to have suffered from gas (as you might say, and titter slightly if you were That Kind of Person) for the whole time. Maybe bloggers are by nature simply gasbags?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Changing shapes?

Interesting discovery today. I pulled out a shirt I’ve had for at least 15 years – a summery sort of shirt, from M&S, in a pleasing colour combination, of the kind of material which lasts for ever and washes like a rag. Ever aware of the growing girth, I tried it on more in the spirit of experimentation than anything else. Would it gape at the buttons? Crease unbecomingly across the back? Refuse to button all the way down?

No. None of these things. It looked exactly the same as it did the day I bought it. And it’s a size smaller than I would buy in M&S these days. And so I wore it and felt … thin. Thinner, anyway. And fifteen years younger? Perhaps.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Creativity and primeval soup

I've been reading Ewan's post on creativity - where good ideas come from. And already from the comments there it's obvious that creativity underpins exciting practice in all manner of areas, whether it's marketing or micro-surgery. However, we all tend, I think, to look at the places we're most familiar with, and mine tend to the traditional.

In discussion with Mr B I pointed out that while he is a creative musician, I am not. I am quite a competent one, with a decent voice and an ability to read at sight and to interpret certain kinds of vocal line - but I don't write music and I don't improvise on any instrument. I do, on the other hand, create in the literary sense, with most of my most satisfying creative moments resulting in a poem with which I am happy. So I'm going to wander briefly down the process which results in the creation of a poem.

I sometimes find myself in a situation where I think: I'd love to write about this. I should write something about this place/experience/emotion. And nothing happens. It's dead. Or perhaps I produce a line or two or several - and discard them. Hopeless. So when does the magic happen? It happens when a phrase or a line suddenly comes into my head and demands attention. Here's an example. I was standing in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield, a place filled with the resonance of the battle fought there, and a line came: "and birdsong in an empty wood". I actually said it aloud, sort of fixing it. A short while later, down another leafy avenue "and bluebells on the parapet". By the time a third line crept in, I knew I had to remember them and dictated them one at a time into my camera as I filmed the trees. That first line - which ended up as the final line of the poem - gave me the metre and the mood; the rest followed.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about writing or poems; I was thinking about death and loss. The rest of the poem came galloping out when I had a chance to sit down and think about it, but that first line had given it to me. So the creativity came from something over which I had no control, and I know from experience that I can go for months without having a single creative moment. But after the initial power-surge, as it were, what happens to the result is anything but random. All I have ever read, all I have ever worked on in language, these feed into the writing, providing me with word-associations, imagery, sentence-structures, line-breaks and so on. It's unconscious, in a way, but at the same time I'm aware of it.

The other thing I'm aware of is the need to keep reading and studying so that my own creativity is nourished. If I visit a friend who encourages me to read a poet I've never encountered, I can find myself suddenly bursting to write - perhaps because of an idea, or maybe simply a sense of liberation given by seeing a new style unfold. And that goes into the voice which, I am told, is now recognisably my own. Add to that the immense reservoir of language and image to be found in religion - not just religious poetry, though that's there too - and you have the basis on which creativity is fed.

Come to think of it: when I was teaching English, one of the greatest gulfs in the experience of the pupils, one of the biggest barriers which they had to overcome in understanding so much of English literature, came from the lack of exposure to religious experience and language in their lives. I felt I had to fill in so much background to make their understanding more complete that it was like having to explain why a joke was funny. So maybe the answer to the question "Where do good ideas come from" has to do with the quality of the primeval soup in the brain of the creative person - even though there will always be many more people who will simply interpret and recreate.

Just like me and music, in fact.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The curse of me and my friend Elsie

I've decided there are some conditions - or is it some forms of conditioning? - which amount to a kind of curse. Nothing as bad, you understand, as having everything you touch turn to gold, but annoying nonetheless. This morning it was the book I'm enjoying. I may well blog more about the book as a whole when I'm done reading it, but for now I'm at the stage where the narrator is becoming recognisable, so that I begin to care what happens to him; the historical setting is enjoyably unfolding in such a way as to convince, and the grounds for the story are beginning to be laid in a way which promises further involvement. In other words, it's becoming a book I'm enjoying, in the classic manner of a summer read which won't over-tax the brain but is at the same time intelligent and engaging.

So where does the curse come in? Well, towards the end of Chapter four, actually. At the bottom of a page, where I read: "Most, like you or I, are content with the hope of salvation, and leave matters in God's hands." And I feel immediately discomfited. I know people have bothers with "like" and "as", and tend to use "like" as a conjunction - in fact, I'm almost used to that in direct speech. But this isn't even that. It's just one of these sloppy moments - and I feel the writer ought to have been more assured. In fact, I feel it ought to be impossible for him to write that. And it clearly isn't.

But then he didn't have my upbringing. I knew from regular repetition that "like" wasn't a conjunction from such an early age that I can't remember not knowing. I think I used to say "like I did" for devilment. But even devilment wouldn't have me write "like I". See what I mean? It's a curse. And I can't switch it off.

I'll tell you about the book in a bit. As long as there aren't more infelicities.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

She's been away, but ...

No posts for a week - a week spent in Herefordshire, very close to Wales, with lovely friends who clear out their lives for us and let us talk, walk, eat and make no decisions at all. But we came home last night and thought has returned with the experience this morning of Morning Prayer.

Now as I explained to the good people of Dunoon in my write-up for this week's paper, we have Morning Prayer these days of interregnum (better not say Vacancy - it makes us sound gormless) when we haven't had a priest for a couple of weeks and therefore don't have the Reserved Sacrament. As you will see if you follow the link, there are all sorts of hedges put around the use of Reservation, for all sorts of very proper and careful reasons. However, I have found that it is in a strange way extremely galling to be told these reasons by a priest - because priests never have to put up with not having the Eucharist. At the moment there is quite a discussion going on in Scottish Pisky circles about this, and about the way in which the laity are getting above themselves and seem to think they don't need ordained clergy, but there is an aspect which doesn't often get mentioned.

Perhaps no-one says this because it's so blooming obvious: Morning Prayer is such a let-down as a service if it's all you're going to get in the day. It's fine as the start to a day on retreat, when there will also be a celebration of Communion, and Evensong, and Compline - but on a Sunday, as a stand-alone, it's not fine at all. And to anyone who tries to tell me that if it's reverently and thoughtfully done it should be just as good, all I can say is: it isn't. Especially not if you were brought up in a tradition which didn't have weekly communion, and fell into Anglicanism precisely because it did.

So what does a church do when it doesn't have a priest? Try harder to find stand-ins? Only have a service when a priest can be present? Make an effort to recruit locums for a mid-week and then reserve? And whatever the answer - and I suppose I'm saying this for the benefit of any clergy who may stray into blethers this week - just remember that if your answer matters, it's going to matter to people who actually care about this. Passionately.

And don't, whatever you do, suggest that we should enjoy chanting all these canticles to Anglican chant, without a choir, with an aging congregation. It disnae work.