Saturday, October 31, 2009

Guising, anyone?

Hallowe'en. Guisers. None of your 'trick-or-treat' nonsense - that's American. Guisers had to go round in the rain and the dark and sing songs or recite a poem or be especially wonderfully dressed so as to elicit admiration and reward without the need to perform. Whatever you think is the right pursuit on this evening, I have never, ever done it.

When I was very small, we went out to friends in the next close (wally closes, if you're interested in such cultural minutiae) who hung treacle scones from the pulley in the kitchen and who dooked for apples both ways - the fork held between the teeth and dropped on the basin full of floating apples from the back of a wooden kitchen chair, or the whole head plunged recklessly into the basin to pick up apples with the teeth. My mother always opined that our hostess had the advantage as she had none of her own teeth and the false ones (we didn't call them wallies, we who lived in wally closes - too vulgar) were stronger than my mother's real ones. It was an occasion for much mess, much wet hair, and considerable hilarity. We always thought the adults were having more fun than us, but perhaps they weren't drinking chilly orange squash on a chilly October night.

But I was never, ever, allowed to go out guising. In fact, I don't recall ever dressing up - though I do remember sending no 1 son out to school as a mini punk with green gelled hair (food dye and my gel) and no 2 son almost passing out under my mini cape (floor length on him) when he was Darth Vader because of the heat at a Sunday School party. (This in the days when there were children in the church). But they didn't go out round people's doors either.

And that is probably why our hall light is off and the door firmly shut, and why no 2 son has already Tweeted a dare to any hapless child to ring his bell tonight. Just shows you how conditioned we all are by what happened all these years ago.

I wonder if kids went guising in the blackout?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Calm restored. For now.

Well well. The Dunoon Observer appeared today with my piece over which the argument arose intact - complete with the "Ands" which a hapless sub deemed unacceptable. I must say I was pleased to see this; perhaps there are areas in which people are prepared to bend after all. I should jolly well hope so anyway.

Thing is, of course, when you teach in a small community, everyone knows who you are and what you do - and if stuff with your name under it starts appearing in a form which anyone you've taught would wonder at, then it's time to stop. In today's edition of the paper, for example, a swift skim discovered a split infinitive (I know - I'm old-fashioned), a singular subject with a plural verb and an example of the word "nice" in its customarily lazy usage.

But at least it's not under my name. Whew.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Voskresenije in Ayr

Went to hear my old friends Voskresenije last night - in Ayr, for they aren't singing in Dunoon this year. (The impresario is too busy helping to run the church in a vacancy, if you're interested). I think this was one one of their best performances in recent years: the appearance in their number of a counter-tenor made an enormous difference, especially in the beautiful "Lonely bell" song. I've not heard it so beautifully sung since the lovely Oleg was singing with the group.

Voskresenije is a fluid choir, like many professional groups. In fact, the only constant over the years I've known them is Anatoly Artomonov, the basso profundo from St Petersburg - and Jurij Maruk, their director, who spends his non-touring season hunting out new young singers to join him. It's a hard life, living out of a mini-bus for months at a time, sleeping in different houses, eating whatever their hosts choose to give them. Today they were going to be driving to Skye to sing, before heading back down the country to be in Glasgow on Sunday. I hope I'll be able to have them back in Dunoon next year - they lift the spirits as the darkness descends.

It was great to hear them again. Look out for them singing in a church near you...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

House style in the sticks

Urged on by Tim, I was going to blog about hymns. But the grim weather has turned my thoughts instead to the irritation caused by our local rag, the redoubtable Dunoon Observer (and Argyllshire Standard, if you're feeling long-winded). Every second Sunday, more or less, I bash out an account of the service at Holy T, just to remind people that we're still alive, so to speak. I landed this job, along with Mrs Heathbank, because "you can write". And usually, my copy appears more or less as it left my Mac.

But not, it would seem, this week. This week my usual contact, a journalist to whom in the distant past I taught the odd thing, is on holiday, and I was mailed by another. This other informed me that as well as cropping my headline (not unexpectedly) he had "altered a couple of grammatical errors". Dear reader, I felt the blood pressure rise. Tell me, I requested, what you regard as a grammatical error. Back came the mail. It was not, after all, a matter of grammar. He apologised for that. No, it was a matter of "house style". Apparently all who write for the paper, paid or not, have to adhere to this. (First I've heard of it) From this, no contributor, it seems, may be allowed to stray. And that includes beginning a sentence with "and".

Whether or not I shall bother writing for this publication again remains to be seen. But am I being horrid when I find it hilarious that a paper which abounds in comma-splice and other linguistic unpleasantness talks about "house style"? But maybe I've got it. Maybe I need to go back a bit. How about this kind of thing:

Mrs Blethers, in giving her vote of thanks, expressed her gratitude to all who had given so freely of their time and talents to make the event so successful. It was agreed, as the congregation wended their way home, that a good time had been had by all.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Backward in Fear?

Having an extra hour on a Sunday morning gives time to think about what we do - on Sundays, for sure, though not exclusively - when we go to church. Having spent yesterday with a former Moderator of the kirk (great crack, Andy - and a great lunch), having listened, interminably, to the news on the car radio about the defecting Anglicans who are tempted by Rome, and having been Sponged the previous day, I'm feeling particularly turbulent this morning. There. I just asked Mr B how watching the Forward in Faith* people on the telly (somehow even more disturbing) made him feel, and I've just summed up my own reaction: turbulence just about does it.

The rotten thing is that much of what these people (no women priests, certainly no women bishops, no openly gay men) do in their religious practices used to be attractive to me. I still love really good music, incense, order - but I abhor the smugness, the "I'm a man and I'm ordained and you, my dear, are not in my league at all when it comes to the worship of God" underlay, the willing piety of the permed ladies, the self-righteousness. And on this grey Sunday morning I contemplate the essentially man-made edifice that is the church and I despair. I despair partly because I know that all my non-Christian or non-church friends and rellies probably think that what was on the news yesterday was my church and either despise or pity me for it.

But thankfully, it is not my church. My church still has a way to go before it sorts out the Christ-like response to gay Christians, gay church people, the gay ordained; it has yet to elect a woman as bishop though there is no legal barrier to such an election; my church tends to be anything but smug though there are pockets of undeniable smuggery. Personally, I'm on a wee crusade to remove the words "us men" from the Creed as said by the celebrant in Holy T (they don't say it in Southwark Cathedral, I note); Mr B is working to remove the dire hymns of the past from our repertoire (leaving us, it has to be said, with a very small selection that meet any sort of criteria at all); I look forward to this morning's sermon from a lay woman that will disturb and challenge in the light of the week's news.

But there is much to be done before we shake off the bigoted and the entrenched. And yesterday's news, as far as I'm concerned, is good news. Let's wave them off to the diluted form of Rome to which the Holy Father invites them. God speed, folks, God speed.

*Or, if you like, Backward in Fear.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sponged, again

Yesterday evening I was in a packed church - and St John's, Princes Street is quite a size to pack - to hear Bishop Jack Spong talk about the difficult subject of eternal life. Difficult? From my early teens I've realised how difficult, when my father used to quizz me: what kind of eternal life did I envisage? Would I fancy it as a spotty adolescent, or would it be more like an eternity of arthritis? He knew, and even then I knew, that these were facetious questions masking an uncomfortable reality - Richard Dawkins would have felt quite at home chez nous in the early sixties. And of course, it's the simplistic notions that the Dawkinites, and plenty of people who actually simply know very little about religion, keep insisting are the bread and butter of the Christian faith and any other you might care to mention. No wonder they dismiss us as daft. And no wonder we get fed up.

But Jack Spong had this crowd feeling anything but fed up, if the applause was anything to go by. He's just brought out another book: Eternal Life: A New Vision, and reading it would give you a better idea of his drift than reading this post. But a few bits stick: the God-filled man that was Jesus showing that the Kingdom of God was within him, and telling us that it is also within us; the living of a life of loving that aligns us with God who is timeless; the self-conscious humanity that is at once our original sin and our saving grace. And a joyous recognition of the impossibility of sharing our experience of God in words, in this question: Can a horse tell another horse what it means to be human?

The laughter showed the relief of those who had realised that the high and crazy and the low and lazy were not for them, and that sharing their own experience didn't fill pews. That's not our job, said the bishop in his wonderfully American way. We're not here to do that. The faith we hold is not to bring peace, but to help us to grasp reality and have the courage to go on facing it. It takes, he said, a lot of courage to be human and realise that we are finite - the whole nature of humanity is to be anxious.

In the end, I can't even redeliver this talk, any more than I can redeliver religious experience without resorting to art. But the realisation that there are so many of us - including people we met whom we know in more conservatively Christian circles - was thrilling. Our churches may be falling down around our ears, they may be populated by people of my age and older - but maybe that's as it should be, at this time. And for sure I came away with the conviction that if the church is diminishing, it should probably not moan about the failings of society.

It's time to take a long, hard look at our own failings. And then? I don't know. But it should be good ...

As Richard Holloway, winding up the evening, put it: we'd been well and truly Sponged. I recommend the treatment!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love's Labours Lost

Love's Labours Lost
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I know I've blogged about this already, but I needed to return to the experience of the Globe Theatre and Love's Labours Lost when I didn't have a cat's bottom distracting me by hiding the screen, to say nothing of the typing paws.

The thing is that in all my life I've only once been to a performance of a play by Shakespeare that I didn't know already, and that was so long ago that I have only the vaguest memory of it. (I think I was still at school, and it was at Jordanhill College and may have been As You Like It) And it struck me forcibly that much of what I get from a performance of, say, Hamlet, comes from anticipation and speculation: how will the Ghost be treated? How will they stage the prayer scene? How will Hamlet say the big soliloquies?

Think of the Olivier film of Hamlet. Olivier took a part of one of Hamlet's speeches about the King's behaviour and used it as a voice-over for the very beginning of the play, so that the words about "particular men" who, "carrying the stamp of one defect", "take corruption from that particular fault" and so is brought to disgrace. The whole slant of the character of Hamlet is changed by this, as he seems to be talking about himself in a way that would suggest he is very aware of why he is unable later on to kill his uncle - and yet his soliloquies show that he cannot understand his difficulties.

I've gone into that simply to show how very different the experience of a play is to someone who has studied it for years - and to wonder what Will himself would have thought of such a reaction. Maybe he'd have torn his hair out, maybe he'd have been puzzled. But it was fascinating to try to "keep up" with an unfamiliar play, without benefit of the text, and not find myself laughing at something several lines too late. I noticed an earnest fellow in the row in front of me poring over the text as the play unfolded - but felt he was missing more than he gained.

Enough. No more. 'Tis not so sweet now as 'twas before - and I've gone on long enough. The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: You that we; we this way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Change and decay ...

The new cell phone arrived while I was away. Actually, two phones - one for Mr B as well - and they came early despite my earnest conversation with the man from Vodafone to the effect that there would be nobody chez nous until yesterday. However, a neighbour signed for them and since last night they have sat, still in their packaging, on the sitting room floor.

Now it's midnight of another day and I've only just opened the box of one of them. It's very similar to my old one, with which I have been deliriously happy (that's hyperbole, but you get my drift), but longer and thinner. Whether or not this will be a good thing only time will tell. Apparently it has a better camera. And the one for Mr B is identical, which will be good in that he'll now be able to work mine if the need arises, but bad in that I can see one of us going off with the wrong phone.

But I realise that once again I'm on the threshold of change. And though I know that as soon as I start using it all will be well, right now I'm wondering why I have to change at all. My old phone - all of three years old, I think - is a familiar friend. And as yet they haven't sent me the promised recycling bag, so it will sit reproaching me as I set up its successor.

Maybe, after all, I am a dinosaur.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Master Byrd and holy smoke

To Sung Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral. And an excellent eperience it was too; not least because Mr B and I, freed from the constraints of being part of the machinery at Holy T, could sit peacefully together in the middle of the congregation and enjoy the seriously good choir (the setting was Byrd's Mass for five voices), a crisp and simple sermon and wonderful incense. Actually it was the combination of this particular incense and this particular music that took me back to when the Anglican church was a new and wonderful mystery for me; when something magical happened to me every time I was in church. Then, of course, I would have been singing the Byrd, but I was interested to note that it didn't matter to me that today I wasn't: the magic was there, in the other-worldly distance, and I was content to listen.

I've become so involved in doing church these days that I sometimes think I've forgotten what it's all about. I hold forth about not having to sit and listen to a choir sing the setting, that I'd rather we all joined in - but I'm talking poor choirs, not wonderful ones. I maintain that we can continue with our worship in the interregnum without the weekly presence of a priest - but I find myself sighing with relief at a beautifully conducted Eucharist, where there are no worries that someone will do something wrong, or forget what to do next. I can let go - and that, of course, leads to other barriers falling, and that is A Good Thing.

There were many good things to observe today - the sunlight streaming through the smoke halfway through the service, the lusty congregational singing (even if the man behind us had a very penetrating voice but a lamentable tendency to drag), the wonderful organ (especially when it let rip at the end of the closing voluntary), the very mixed, very large congregation. I felt safe, I felt part of it, I felt welcome - and at the end, we were welcomed by the celebrant, who admitted to favouring this particular incense because it was less likely than other varieties to make her cough.

And a few random insider observations: we all shook hands at the Peace - there was no grinning and bowing as has become the norm in the Diocese of Argyll in these pestilential times - but received in one kind only. And I was pleased to see that no-one, not a single server, be they never so sylphlike, wore a rope round his or her middle. Clergy and servers alike were decently and becomingly clad in albs which fell unimpeded to their ankles. (From this you may deduce that I abhor the alb as frock mode, hitched up with as much as 10 inches of leg/trouser/long skirt showing beneath it.)

And the notices were given decently and in order before the service began. This works. Oh dear. I fear my holiday may be coming to an end ...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Shakespearian evening

To The Globe last evening, to see Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. Quite an experience! Our already excellent seats were upgraded even before we could sit in them because there was a dirty big camera in front of them, and so we found ourselves in the best seats, in the very middle of the lowest seated area, behind the groundlings. They in turn were not just in front of the stage, as I expected, but were actually enclosed by two ramps which angled round in front of the main apron and were used by the the actors for sudden appearances - and by the deer which wandered in and out and died under the arrows of the Queen and her ladies.

I have to admit that I didn't know this play, and I was fascinated to experience it for the first time as Shakespeare's audienced did. How hard they must have listened! Or were some of them like Polonius (I do know Hamlet!) - remember, he's for a jig or a tale of bawdry or he sleeps? L'sLL is a torrent of verbal humour, in this production combined with a great deal of slapstick that had the audience guffawing. It all felt very Elizabethan, right down to the rigours of sitting on a wooden bench, even if we had been supplied with hassock-like cushions. And people did drink beer, though I didn't see any sellers of sausages (I believe they replaced the ice-cream lady in Will's day). And at the end we all applauded in time to the final dance-music while the cast jigged wildly on the stage, overcoming the gloom produced by the message of the death of the queen's father.

A fascinating experience, then, culminating in a headlong dash over the cobbles of Will's Bankside as we headed for the speedy train home.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Christie in a country house?

Having gone on about the storm brewing last night, I had to use this pic to demonstrate the hazards of life in these parts at this season - for are we not just out of the octave of the equinoctial gales? It was taken through the car windscreen as we sat on the Western Ferries coming home this morning, having forgone breakfast in our lovely hotel on Arran to catch the first ferry to run, just in case it was also the last.

But it is really of last night that I wish to tell. For after dinner, as we sat deep in squashy leather sofas beside a log fire, we were joined first by three jolly golfers and then by a couple from The South - all of us due to catch the ferry on the morn. I suppose it was the laptop that brought us together, as we could all see for ourselves the expected wind speeds on the met office site and the Cal Mac status reports. Mr B and I were modestly sipping espresso and nibbling the wonderful sweetmeats thoughtfully provided with it (just in case we perhaps had a tiny corner left), but the malt was flowing and the banter becoming more hilarious when we heard that the last boat of the day had been cancelled, and the first of Saturday, and the boat was lying overnight in Brodick. No-one knew if it would sail in the morning, and remarks like "It depends on who the captain is" did nothing to reassure.

It was, of course, typical Agatha Christie fare: the country house; the sense of isolation, of being cut off from the outside world; the contrast between the soft lighting and warmth and the howling darkness outside; the occasional interruption as some windswept traveller, gleaming with water, burst in at the door. One of our number would surely be dead by morning, in mysterious circumstances. Questions about occupation revealed a surgical instrument maker in our midst ... a banker ... an accountant ... surely there were sinister implications here?

Actually, no. At least four of us caught the first ferry together, having survived the night and the anxiety. But I caught no further glimpse of the Jolly Golfers. Perhaps they decided to stay and have that last game in the gale. I do hope so ...

Friday, October 02, 2009

Ancient Mariners again

Sometimes they get the weather forecast just right. And so it is today: they promised us gales overnight and into Saturday, and as I sit by the log fire in the hotel, after a wonderful meal, the wind is howling in the chimney and the talk is all of the cancelled Cal Mac sailings tonight and in the morning. And we're supposed to be leaving tomorrow afternoon. My attention keeps being drawn to the mutterings at the desk, where I can hear anxious conversations about trying to leave by earlier ferries, checking out at the usual time whatever, and I'm trying to concentrate on not fretting.

It feels strange being on such a large island and still depending so completely on Cal Mac ferries. I read in the Arran Banner today that Western Ferries are interested in starting a link here - what a Good Thing that would be. But we'll have to see what the morning brings. A guy in the bar has just opined that it's going to be a rammy in the morning.

Interesting, huh?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Still climbing after all these years ...

As I write, my legs moan quietly: were you wise? My feet feel ... stressed, and my knees, especially the right one, feel as if someone has put cotton-wool in where the cartilage was. And I don't care. Today - this morning especially - the sun shone, and from first light I could see Goat Fell above the woods round our hotel. I swear it was calling me. We had intended to walk the length of Glen Rosa, climb to the Saddle, come down again. Safer, really, in the light of the fact that we'd forgotten to pack the map I'd carefully looked out. Don't want to get caught mapless on the tops if the mist comes down ...

But the bright blue of this morning killed off these cautions, sensible notions, replacing them with the urge to be up there, among the grey rocks and the spase brown grass, the granite gravel and the peaty pools. And so it came to pass that we drove to Corrie, left the car on the shore road, and started up the relentless slope which leads you onto the hill at the White Water, on into the corrie, and up the last, lung-busting slope to the wonderful ridge that joins Goatfell to North Goatfell. By the time we got up - it took us a very respectable 21/4 hours - the wind was biting, bringing the temperature (11ÂșC at sea level) down to a level which had us piling on every stitch of clothing, right down to my Obama for President woolly hat.

But I cared about that as little as I cared about the sense or otherwise of this day. What I cared about were the deer that walked elegantly by as we ate our lunch - five lesser ones and a magnificent stag who stopped as I bleeped my camera open, posed haughtily, and trotted effortlessly off up the summit slope of N. Goatfell. What I cared about was the wonderful roaring of the stags, still obivously at it far below in Glen Sannox. What I cared about was the rough granite beneath my boots and the great view of the Arran peaks - Cir Mhor, the Castles - all slightly below me where I braced myself against the wind to take photos.

We took the downward path carefully, out of deference to the aging knees (balance the thought of the years knocked off them with the encouragement to "keep going" handed out by every medic we ever talk to). We were shocked by a sudden shot as we crossed the corrie, and I thought of another stag I had spotted as we climbed it earlier in the day and hoped whoever it was had been a good shot. We also hoped they wouldn't think we were anything other than tired walkers.

The whole day took us just over 5 hours - so close to the timings of our past that I felt ... well, smug, actually. A good late birthday present, to get up there where I first climbed 58 years ago and live to tell the tale. Life in the old legs yet, I'd say!

Note: Here be photos