Saturday, November 28, 2009

Party time!

This (mercifully) blurred, phone-camera pic shows a kiddies' party in full swing. Actually, it's a first birthday party. The birthday boy's face is strangely lit, which may show another camera homing in for a flash shot, but what amuses me about this moment is the fact that the adults are all wearing the small animal masks, all singing like billy-oh to the lead of the Caterpillar Music lady, while the assembled tots do their best to crawl from the centre of the circle or look totally bemused at their hitherto perfectly sensible parents.

Perhaps it was the Cava, perhaps the excellence of the leadership, or perhaps the fact that Birthday Boy Alan, one year old today, actually maintained not only his cool but also a pleasant smile throughout the entire proceedings - whatever the reason, I found myself really enjoying this party. From the tot in the designer dress and glam black tights to the tiny baby, all of 4 weeks old, who slept impassively throughout, there were no wails, no frayed tempers, and no misdemeanours on the part of either kiddies or parents.

But I shall not readily forget the sight of Mr B struggling with the hand movements in Incy Wincy Spider. Maybe he should stick to providing the harmonies ...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The mouse's tale

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. And if you're old enough to remember where that opening comes from, I trust you're enjoying retirement. But à nos moutons - or in this case, nos souris.

Once upon a time, there was a small mouse. He - or was it a she? - might have been called a church mouse, except that he never made it to the church. No, this little mouse lived in the Rectory, in a small room under the stairs that had once been referred to as The Bishop's Bedroom but had, since the days when the hapless Bishop indeed slept there, become a dump. As the person who lived in the house gradually dumped more and more in the way of unwanted debris in this room, the little mouse found it a refuge, though there was always the dread, the flaring fear, induced by the Rectory Cat.

The joyful day dawned, however, when the Rectory Cat set off with its owner to live in a rather less damp environment, and the little mouse was free to roam and to breed and to enjoy the crumbs left by the parishioners who had returned to using the house as a hub for social activities. Free, that is, until it became apparent that the old junk was going to have to go, to make way for the junk of the next incumbent - or even, Heaven forfend, a visiting bishop. And so it came about that a hard-working and selfless couple turned up one dreary day and put all the junk in their car and took it to the tip.

A few days later, the selfless lady noticed that a packet of biscuits, left in the car against a peckish moment, had been nibbled at. Her equally selfless husband denied any snack attacks, and their suspicions grew. Eventually they found a tiny nest in a corner of the car, under a seat where no-one would look. They did not, however, find the mouse.

Several suggestions have surfaced among the faithful as to how to deal with this phenomenon. It was thought that a cat in the car could be messy, and might damage the upholstery; poison or a trap seemed likewise messy and distasteful. To date the most enterprising seems to be a trip in said car to the incumbency of the former inhabitant and the former Rectory cat.

After all, it is their mouse.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Change ... but no decay, yet.

We've got the decorators in at the moment. The contents of our biggest room - except for the piano and the harpsichord - are crammed into the spare room, the stairs (each step a bookcase), the landing (where I keep walking into a sharp-cornered carry-box full of pictures). We've discovered that the gable end is bone dry (cheers) and today I've been relieved to find that the paint I chose for the walls is indeed a pleasantly warm neutral shade and I won't have to sell the house after all. So far so good.

But stripping your house back to the basics reveals much of what has been before. As a Victorian semi, the original house had ceiling roses, picture rails, dado rails, tall fireplaces and panelled doors, and our bedroom retains much of what it must have had over a hundred years ago - even the fireplace, though we lack the maid to light our fire in the morning. Downstairs, however, is another matter. At some point in, I imagine, the 60s, the then owner succumbed to the desire for modernisation and DIY, with the removal of the ceiling rose from the sitting room and the covering of the panelled doors with hardboard - remember 'flush panelling'? - and plastic lever handles. (I suspect that the dado and picture rails went earlier - you can still see their brown varnish outlines on the plaster.) We removed the hardboard from the doors in the '80s, though not before we'd lived with their white glossiness for 10 years or so. It was fortuitous that at that time we were able to use the resulting sheets of white board to make the most wonderful CND placards of varying shapes and sizes and outstanding durability for our usually rain-soaked demos.

So every panelled door had its silver lining, though we cursed the imbeciles who had roughly chiselled off the original mouldings to accomodate the hardboard. We put new mouldings on the doors, or simply painted over the ruination. We ripped down the hardboard pelmets above the windows. Now we can see what was previously hidden - that someone had also ripped off the facings of a cupboard to create a tasteful alcove with gently curved top trim and painted its interior a strange violet colour. (Evidence suggests that the body of the room was green at the time. With a floral pattern.)

We've found a wooden plug in the wall, which had left a bump we'd always wondered about. It's above head height, in the middle of the wall facing the window. I imagine perhaps a dresser with a tendency to topple, steadied with a nail into the wood. I imagine a Victorian family, down from Glasgow for their holidays, with the range in the back room which would be the kitchen, the sink in the window, the cludgie in the back garden and the wash-house where we park the car. In the main bedroom there are still the wooden supports for an extra bed in the walk-in cupboard, though heaven knows who would sleep there. It's our house, but there are ghosts ...

Today we've put back the ceiling rose in the sitting-room. It's not really big enough - the one in the bedroom measures 3' in diameter - but we'd have had to wait too long for the bigger one to be delivered, and the slightly lesser one looks jolly good and matches the cornice quite well. The ceiling is painted, and the walls half done with the first coat - enough to tell me how it will look. The painter pronounced it 'warm and light', which reassured Mr B, and I'm already wondering if we should replace the curtains or not bother. I might even move away from a paper globe for a lampshade ... but then, I might not. Change, yes - but not too much!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Things left undone ...

How often have you said something like I'll do that when I retire - that being anything from playing the violin to taking up tap dancing? And if you have indeed reached that apparent Nirvana, how much have you managed to accomplish of these long-held goals?

The two examples I gave are both things I've done in my time (and have to confess that the tap-dancing, though enormous fun, was probably a bad idea as I was well past my best and seem to have jiggered my toe joints permanently with the combined effect of vulgar little shoes and percussive steps). I always hoped that when I was no longer teaching I'd find a few like-minded souls to play with - not really wonderful instrumentalists, but able to read well enough to have fun. I pictured myself having time to enjoy this on a regular basis, perhaps fortified with a small tincture. (This because on one occasion another violinist and I became so hysterical at the sight of ourselves sawing away in a full-length mirror that we were unable to go on and required more from the bottle that stood on the floor between us)

But I haven't done it in years. Nor have I written yards of poetry, nor have I studied a new language or even read enough serious literature, let alone theology. I get by on snippets of the last, taken on an ad hoc basis when there's a sermon on the horizon. So what's filling the time, and why haven't I been more disciplined?

Well, there's plenty. And though some of it is fun, some of it's plain hard work or undertaken out of a sense of obligation. This makes me wonder about my motivation - and I realise that actually I'm the same butterfly that I've always been. I can't be bothered to practise if I don't have a performance, I like to make music in company, I like to perform rather than to prepare. I won't persevere in reading something that doesn't capture my interest within the first hour, and I'm easily put off by jargon or convoluted argument or badly-handled syntax. I probably need to see the end of a task before I begin, and I become bored as readily as I did when I was 16.

So I may yet play the violin, but I'll not hold my breath. And I'm beginning to think I shall die without reading War and Peace. Sad, really...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let's elect a bishop (part 1)

Being a member of the Electoral Synod of Argyll and The Isles comes with its own particular challenges, not the least of which is the drive to Oban and back - wonderfully scenic in the morning light, but distinctly hard work as the gloaming descends and turns into darkness as you drive down Loch Eck-side, with its winding bends and strange cambers and the dark loch water waiting on your right-hand side...Anyway, I'm a bit bug-eyed with it all, but determined to get some thoughts down while they're fresh.

First off, I have to say it was great. Not because the seats were soft and the venue (the Cathedral) cosy, but because the chair (and fellow-blogger; never mind that he's also the Primus) was skilled and adroit and handled things in a way that made people feel valued. It helped too to have not only Bishop David, but also Bishop Mark (he blogs too) - not because they're bloggers, but because they remind us by their very presence that there's a province out there, and they can help us, and we're not as isolated as we sometimes feel.

We were reminded of our responsibilities - and also of the holiness of our task, which could also be seen as enjoyable. It was suddenly important for each of us to know (a) that we were supposed to be there and (b) in what capacity we were there. Someone asked why the process of electing a new bishop took so long; +David pointed out that it was because Canon 4* said so, but built, along with +Mark, a picture of precisely why such a thing cannot be rushed. If we want a prayerful person who is truly committed to his/her calling, we must be prepared to let such a person prayerfully and thoughtfully decide if it is indeed their calling - and the time suddenly isn't a very long one at all. We were reminded of the task of the Bishop - "to interpret the local to the universal and the universal to the local", and we were reminded also that clergy come in all shapes and sizes and variations with regard to training and background, and that past experience in parish life was a vital component.

We considered the strangeness of the "gracious restraint" under which the College of Bishops now operates in the context of the Anglican Church moratoria on consecrating bishops in long-standing same-sex relationships, authorising same-sex blessings and cross-border incursions by conservative bishops: the last appears to go on regardless, which makes me wonder why the other two should be any different, but that'll be me being simplistic as usual. It'll be a good day when we catch up with the secular world on this one.

The afternoon session gave us the chance to bring up stuff we wanted the preliminary committee to bear in mind. I did my usual plea for a bishop to have a good grasp of modern communications, but I also voiced the opinion that we mustn't think a church is failing simply because it has not managed to attract any young people. The young people in my life who were in church all through their formative years now don't darken the door; they haven't lived in the diocese since they left school. Someone disagreed with this, but as this is my personal space I can now come back and say that young Piskies for the most part don't end up stacking supermarket shelves as a full-time occupation: they leave for the bright lights and never return. The people we tend to attract are older, moving to the country/seaside for lifestyle reasons, perhaps thinking more seriously on life and death than ever before - and finding our churches a suitable place in which to think such thoughts.

I don't intend to cover all that was said today. Instead, I want to make another point of my own: in a diocese where so many lay people have, through necessity, become preachers and intercessors and worship leaders, we need a bishop who is sufficiently sure of his/her own personality, faith and theology to be stimulated by our willingness, willing and able to support and cherish us, and to lead our existing clergy into a joyous partnership with the laity. +David called for "careful, eyes-wide-open" leadership. +Mark warned us to avoid asking a bishop to do it all - to think instead of a shared ministry.

So that's it started, this process. The nomination forms are available online and in publications, the preliminary committee has more thinking to do, more selecting, before we can see any candidates. Now, I must print myself a copy of Canon 4 ...

*Canon 4: governs the process of electing a bishop; prone to being used recreationally when the General Synod is under-occupied. (They alter it)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Berlin Wall remembered

A last, foolish, personal, wandering memory about the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, I was running the school magazine, The Pupils' View, of which No.1 son was the editor. (No, he involved me - not the other way round). We were blessed with the help of an art teacher who had a gift for wild drawing of the type just made for magazine covers, and with the creative genius of said No.1 son. And so it was that the edition that Christmas had on its Santa-decked cover a free gift: a piece of concrete, about the size of a pea, supposedly from the Berlin Wall.

Now, I don't know how many gullible infants were convinced by the authenticity of this, though I do know that I heard no-one actually question it. But I have the most vivid memory of two girls, one of whom at least was extremely elegant and beautiful from an early age, sitting on the step of the Techy building, both wearing safety goggles, both wielding hammers, battering a lump of concrete from our drive-in (which is still in a state of disintegration) into small particles. 600 of them. An army of minions then solemnly sellotaped a piece onto each magazine, and off they went...

Get it only in the Pupils' View! Your very own piece of the Berlin Wall!

I knew there were things I missed about teaching ...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Huvtaes galore

My pal Kenny's been blogging about having a day off work, coinciding nicely with my thoughts today on what to some must seem like a life of days off - this retirement business.One of the things I joked about missing when I first stopped work was the absence of a proper "sickie" - because if you're not staying off work because you have a bug of some kind, there seems little point in actually taking to your bed for a day. No, you just slope miserably around doing things in a half-hearted sort of way that doesn't seem all that different from normal life - not the same thing at all.

But more seriously, now that I'm on my 5th year of retirement I've realised that there are people who retire properly and people who seem to miss that particular boat. I'm one of the latter group, as is Mr B. There are people who retire and find themselves without a single obligation in their lives - not a single "huvtae" to impose a deadline or produce a modicum of stress. They do what they like when they want to, and don't give it a thought: they're retired, after all. And then there's me and people like me. Ok, a lot of it's church - and I'm not talking just turning up on a Sunday. And it's not actually religious faith putting on the pressure - it's people, and the need not to let them down, and the difficulty in saying "no". Perhaps the tasks and obligations look interesting, fulfilling, even, so you say "yes" - and suddenly your life takes on the familiar structure where there are no weeks where you can see clear space of more than a day at a time.

Add to that any little job related to your past life that you take on because you know you can do it and it might be fun and anyway it'll pay for that new suite you've rashly ordered. It turns out to have a deadline and suddenly you're rushing home at 4.30pm to get a couple of hours' work on it before, domestic goddess that you are, you produce a wonderful meal. (The DG bit keeps cropping up, by the way, just as it always did when you were working - it's just that you thought you'd have more time for it and you don't)

It was, however, pointed out to me today that I'd probably be bored if I had no huvtaes. I have, after all, chosen my burdens - most of them, anyway. So I'll just carry on singing and writing and planning concerts and writing exams and blogging and preaching and attending synods and running discussion groups and performing in workshops and ... and ...

And I'll enjoy my holidays, which will still feel like holidays. And I won't ever know what boredom feels like.

Slip of the tongue?

A wonderful, poignant moment at this morning's Remembrance Sunday service. One of our few old servicemen went out to stand at the altar during the two minutes' silence, waiting to take the wreath out to the churchyard where there is a war grave, of a serviceman who died in 1918. After the silence he spoke the usual words - only this year we all heard him say: "They shall not grow cold as we who are left grow cold".

Dead right too. The heating hadn't gone on in time to make much difference, and someone had left the door to the tower open so that any heat was vanishing as quickly as it was created. The miracle was that no-one so much as sniggered. Guess we were all so cold we didn't really think about it till afterwards.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Nectar from New Zealand

I don't think I've ever blogged before about wine. But that's not to say I don't think about it, don't enjoy wine - and I dare say I'm well on the way to being more than a little fussy about the wine I drink. The last couple of nights - in fact, I think it was the last three nights, as we're being pretty abstemious these days - we've enjoyed simply one of the best whites I've tasted. So here's my shout-out for a wonderful New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: Esk Valley 2008, from Gordon Russell of Marlborough.

I can't really bear to go off into a wine-buff's rant, but this was a marvellously fresh, layered taste, with fruit and citrus and a wonderful aftertaste that reminded me of my fave champagne. We bought it in a special offer from Laithwaites, the mail order company we've had our wine for from as long as I can remember. Not that we mail them any more - in fact, they phone us up periodically for a little chat, like old friends.

And that's that. A brilliant wine from a company who've never let us down. And no, I'm not getting any buckshee bottles for saying so.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Apostrophe Disease: a remedy?

I rejoiced at the discovery today of a web page dealing humorously and effectively with the use of the apostrophe. I've blogged before about apostrophe disease, but then I was inspired by a piece on typography. This new discovery, tweeted by @nmcintosh, actually makes a wonderful stab at setting down the rules and using illustrations and jokey examples (I do not =* don't like putting honeybees in my underpants) to drive them home. The site contains other examples of things you might have forgotten - like all the stuff you need to pass your driving test - and maybe it's ok for the apostrophe to join road signs: linguistic road signs?

Of course, every teacher knows you can have a riotously jolly lesson in which everyone has fun learning about whatever bee currently inhabits your bunnet (as distinct from your underpants) but seems to have forgotten the point of the exercise the next time they have to use the bee (if you get me). And maybe this would have no greater success. But it's a valiant effort and a good reference point the next time someone's struggling.

And struggle they will - it's the surest thing in written English that the most unexpected people will exhibit the symptoms of apostrophe disease. But at least we don't have to reinvent the wheel any more.

*I really need to put an arrow here, but have lost the will to work out to how to. Anyone?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pipe to the spirit ...

Thought I'd join the hymn fray before it's all over bar the singing ...

It's harder these days to find hymns that I can bear to sing, actually. The big, ponderous hymns that we used to bash out regardless leave me cold, even if they have wonderful tunes, as some of them do. Maybe too much exposure to them is part of the problem - they're boring after the nth repetition. So even Come Down O Love Divine (to Down Ampney) feels like a drag these days, and in a way that makes me sad. Part of the problem could be that it's not the same sung by half a dozen people with the rest a gentle murmuring in the rear - a proper choir at least gave me the pleasure of balanced harmony and colour as we sang.

I used to be thrilled by Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy). This hymn was completely new to me when I first encountered the Episcopal church, in the cathedral on Cumbrae, and is forever associated for me with firsts - incense, communion, the sense of the holy. I can still feel the hairs rise when we get to the alleluias, and the imagery is so poetic that there is little sense of the banal or the absurd. The same could be said for Lo he comes at Advent - I'd never heard it until I had moved to Dunoon, and it bowled me over.

Otherwise, I still find plainsong powerful. Ancient words tend to be timeless, somehow - the imagery so obviously not to be taken literally that I can just enjoy the poetry of it. I love Be still my soul and Lead kindly light, just as I love There is a Redeemer. I find the Taizé stuff we do a true vehicle for meditation and a way out of the ordinary, and I get the hair-on-end moments when we do Ubi Caritas with the solo verses as found in HON - especially if it's Bishop Martin or Mr B singing them.

But I'm at once fussy and fortunate. I rarely have to listen to inadequate organ playing, and I expect a high standard of harmonisation of last verses. If there isn't a decent musician around, I'd rather have said services than fight against flaccid rhythms or duff harmonies, and I've had enough Victorian bombast to last me an eternity. In the end heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter ... no?