Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A different kind of Christmas

Assembly ...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A rather different Christmas, that was - but captured in one of its best moments by the pic accompanying this post, which shows Mr B putting the final touches to a very pink doll's cradle, the recipient of which waits eagerly, doll at the ready. And for me this was always going to be the biggest difference: my first Christmas Day away from home since the year before the daddy of the cradle recipient was born. So farewell, Domestic Goddess, and welcome, leisured guest who spent a great deal of time playing with toys or spread somnolently on the sofa. And d'you know something? It was great.

But there are other memories. The triumphant sense of having helped to make the midnight mass happen, and the joy of singing with a skilled group before and during it, making up in some ways for the cancelled carol service. "Bethlehem Down" is quite tricky by candlelight - even if you do cheat with tiny LED lights. The huge delight of seeing both my grandchildren - to say nothing of their parents - together on Boxing Day, and managing to get photos of them sitting like angels before we ate (again). The relief of journeys safely completed and of knowing the London contingent made it home in one piece.

And there were other firsts. I can't recall when the weather was quite so adverse at this time of the year, making motorway driving as slow as single track road traffic and outings to Asda as perilous as the Rock Fall on Everest. (note hyperbole here). And I haven't spent time in hospital on Christmas Day before, and have nothing but praise for the people who chose to work in Edinburgh Royal on that day and exuded reassurance, pain relief and the exhortation to have some turkey and that glass of Rioja when I got back to the house. (I recovered. I slept a lot)

And where did the message of Christmas come in? I suspect in that last paragraph, actually, for the people who don't focus entirely on church and home but make it possible for others to do so are cheery treasures. As I get older, I realise the futility of trying to hold onto the thrill I felt as a child, the wonder I found as a student in the singing of carols I'd only heard on the radio and could now perform well, the excitement of your own family Christmas as stockings were filled and hung and presents piled beneath the tree. This year we opened our own presents at 2am over a glass of malt, and the rest as part of the excitement of another generation. And that's as it should be. I'm not going to manufacture something that's passing.

Instead, I'm going to enjoy the image created by Fr. Hugh in his midnight sermon, of the Christ Child elbowing aside the ox and the ass of greed and selfishness - an image which had me chuckling at the thought of an infant as muscular and determined as my grandson Alan. It's an image which doesn't depend on ritual or appropriate footwear and which I can carry with me into any future Christmas season. It also gives a better meaning to the platitudinous "Christmas is for children" - for in a sense it is, and for the child in all of us.

So Happy Christmas, children, whatever your age!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Angels in yellow waistcoats

This jolly picture, taken on the path from the Rectory to Holy Trinity church, is not of a member of our congregation, though there were a few of us up there this morning. No, this is a jolly roads department employee - one of a crew who made our morning.

Here's the story. At 9am, five of us de-iced our cars and set off through the fog to meet at the Roads Depot. There we hoped to take some grit in buckets from the public bins and get it onto the really hairy bend on the church drive. We found the bins empty, though we could see a grit mountain inside the perimeter fence. But suddenly, after a short conversation with a foreman (or whatever - as far as I was concerned he was simply the first of this morning's angels, in a beard and woolly hat) we had not only the grit we needed, but also a lorry, three men, a small boy, several shovels and a hand-operated grit spreader.

By the time we'd all parked our cars out of the way and headed up the drive - where the work two of us had done on Tuesday had really paid off with two black pathways in the ice - the lorry was halfway up and the men were cheerily spreading grit - all the way up to the church, round the carpark, and up the steep bit to the rectory. I don't know if they had any church affiliation themselves, but they worked like Trojans in the best possible humour until the foreman pointed our that that was their teabreak time over and they ought to get back so that he could organise the next shift.

So there you have it. Angels in reflective waistcoats making it possible for us to have our Midnight Mass after all. And after a pretty grim Advent on my part, and a stressful week agitating about the church, this morning felt like the coming of the light.

Thanks, chaps. Oh - is it all right to call angels chaps?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Great expectations

Presumably our expectations about life these days give rise to all the panic we see about ...well, snow. I have childhood memories of huge snowbanks at the sides of Glasgow streets, and of being sent home early because the (outside) school toilets were frozen; of wonderful sledging on these unexpected free afternoons because of aforementioned plumbing crises; of launching myself intrepidly down slides in the playground before the janny ruined them with salt. But I don't recall the trams going off, or being kept at home because it was too snowy to travel to school (half an hour away, if you walked).

But now we expect to be cocooned in our cars until the last possible moment when we go anywhere; we expect to whizz along motorways at insane speeds; we expect planes to shake off the shackles of earth without worrying about the improbability of landing safely on black ice - and when something makes this difficult or impossible we go into hyperbolic mode and talk as if the end of the world had come.

I'm as bad, in my own way: if I want to speak to someone and they're not either at home to answer the phone or responding immediately to their mobile, I feel irritation closely followed - if it's family - by panic: is their phone ringing out in a crashed car? Where are they? Why are they out in the snowy dark with a 2 year old when they should be safely at home with In the Night Garden?

So tomorrow, in penance for all this exaggerated expectation, I shall join in further gritting of our church drive (apparently our labours yesterday have produced miraculous improvement; we just need to do it further up) so that we can have our lovely Midnight Mass tomorrow. And then I hope to drive sedately along the M8 to join my family for Christmas dinner. It's been an interesting Advent of flu, cancellations and anxiety followed by relief as family travelled the country to be with us - it would be good to relax for a bit. Especially if someone else is doing the cooking ...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Helpful sharing!

This little gadget is the answer to a teetery maiden's prayer in this weather: rubber oversoles with spikes, which you pull on over your boots/wellies/shoes/trainers. I wore them yesterday to push AJ along the icy West Bay prom to the playpark, and was able to march briskly without a hint of sliding.

I bought them in Tiso's in Glasgow for £25, and my only regret is that we only bought one pair - we thought we'd try them out first. Unless Mr B and I take a foot each, we're kinda limited right now - but this is the official Blethers recommended product for the winter.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Unhelpful sharing

It's a strange feature of the way the mind works so that some images or comments stick and return to haunt us while others pass and are instantly forgotten. I recall once inadvertently seeing a sequence in the film Highlander - a sequence I'm not even going to detail here because I don't want to give it further mileage - which recurred like a nightmare for years. (I should add that I saw it without wanting to as the film was being watched on video in a classroom at the end of term when I happened to be looking for a book in the room. I simply looked up at the wrong moment).

And then of course other people think you're crazy for being affected. But maybe it's a warning against the chance stupid comment, the gratuitous insult, the sharing of information which is better kept unshared. For we never, ever know where it is going to resurface, and we have no idea of the lasting power of our thoughtless words to spoil and destroy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of Time, and its passing*

Goodness. Another reminder of the passage of time in that most unpromising of venues, the recently-rebranded-as-Morrison's in Dunoon. With the re-opening of the larger of the town's supermarkets came the questionable advantage of a couple of self-service checkouts - good if you have a packet of coffee and a carton of milk, but rather slower if you have a big shop which you struggle to accommodate on the smallish bag area. And certainly not good if you have to queue to use the facility in the first place.

I found myself with only a couple of items the other day - just right for a quick swipe at the barcode reader and away. But there was a problem. It was just after midday and the local primary schools were out. A small boy - about nine, I'd guess - was hovering in front of the touch-screen. I asked if he was finished with it, whereupon he dabbed at it with his gloved hand, then hit it, then attempted to operate it with his nose. At this, I suggested he quit fooling around before I lost patience. There was an interesting moment, a fraction of a second, when I wondered if he was going to resist my charm, but no. He left, breenging past me to join his little friends, only to be seized by the checkout assistant who was hovering: he still had to pay for a bag of crisps.

I realised that this assistant was in fact a former pupil of mine, and asked what he had done to deserve the thankless task of guarding the self-service checkouts. It seemed to me that it was the equivalent of the naughty stool, though he assured me it was simply that as a part-timer (because of going to college) he had no status and got all the dirty jobs. "It's these kids, " he told me solemnly. "They're little bastards, all of them. Were we like that?"

I told him that there was a reason for my teaching secondary, and that no, his lot had been relatively civilised when I knew them. But I couldn't help reflecting that this too was a sign of the passing years, when before my very eyes I saw the adult weariness on the face of someone who had been sitting at a desk in front of me ... when? Not yesterday? Not last year?

Oh dear.

*I feel there is a touch of Bacon's essays about this title. I rather like it. But how do you spell breenging?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A fold in time

Really far too tired to blog this, but the moment will pass otherwise... Today's concert, Words & Music for Christmas, was an old formula that we devised some 25 years ago for the choir we had started when we came to Dunoon. The Hesperians was a mixed voice choir, about 15 voices strong, and when we began our Christmas events, always on the third Sunday in Advent, we packed the venue, with people up in the balcony that even then we suspected as being precarious. In 1996 we gave our final such concert and the choir ceased to exist, having run out of tenors.

This year the choir that is really the child of the Hesperians revived the format, and, in a folding of time, that was what we were involved in this afternoon. 8+1 is a female voice group - 8 women, 1 man (Mr B, the MD) - and for today we were augmented by a second bass to sing SATB pieces. The second altos have developed into convincing tenors, and the sound was magical in places; we also sang several pieces arranged for female voices. We actually achieved a sufficiently high standard to put a smile on Mr B's face - not a rueful grimace in sight today!

But the audience reflected the fact that there are so many more carol events in Dunoon these days. Gone the time when we were the only show of this type in town - and gone the children, our children, sitting solemnly in the front row with their grandparents, also long gone. We are the grandparents now - and our grandchildren are far away and probably don't realise that their grandparents don't know their place and are still up there performing. I kept looking up expecting to see feet swinging at the ends of legs too short to reach the floor, and seeing only a sea of grey heads.

But the adrenaline of performance still works its rejuvenating magic, even if we collapse in exhaustion afterwards, and the particular thrill of hearing our own work - Mr B's arrangements; a couple of my poems - performed in public is not easily beaten. The hall may be on the verge of demolition, the balcony long out of bounds because of rot; the choristers may suddenly have become 13 years older without really noticing - but today we performed our socks off, and showed how it can be done.

And if you've never heard The Christ Child's Lullaby arranged for solo voices (Gaelic and English), four part choir, piano and solo cello - you've missed yourself. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A study in parenthesis

Found myself pondering stress, retirement and singing over breakfast this foggy morning. As usual for as long as I can remember - certainly since I was 12 - this time of year is a whirl of activity which is nothing to do with buying presents and drinking mulled wine in Christmas Markets (if only!) and everything to do with Keeping Well (because of having to sing), Very Important Rehearsals (because the gig is tomorrow) and What Shall We Sing at Midnight?

Add to that the deadline for a job I've been doing (before the end of this week) and you have, as near as dammit, the situation I used to be in when I was working. Then, in addition to the singing (remember - singers are the biggest hypochondriacs in the flu season) we tended to have exam marking to finish and the school magazine to get out before the customers started skiving in the run-up to the hols. And when I was a pupil we had the school concert - huge in Hillhead High School in the 60s, and multiplied by 4 the year the St Andrew's Halls burned down and we had to put them on in the (very much smaller) school hall on four nights one hectic week - so were trailing home after 6pm on the foggy Glasgow evenings after two hours of extra-curricular orchestral rehearsal. The choir, I remember, was never allowed to interfere with the orchestra, and had to fit rehearsals in at lunch time.

So I have never, ever, known a peacefully domestic festive season - have never understood when people have said "Just as well you caught flu/the cold/winter vomiting/bubonic plague before Christmas" - because, for me, Christmas has always come as a great "whew!" that I made it all (or didn't, as this year: I still haven't reconciled myself to the cancellation of last week's carol service). In a way, this mirrors my retirement so far - and that's where this morning's ponderings came in. Were I to chuck it all, to confine my singing to the shower (sounded great this morning) and my church activities to the pew on a Sunday; to refuse any invitation to practise my professional skills in retirement - would I turn into a placid, relaxed pensioner with time to visit friends and take little mid-week breaks in interesting cities?

Or would I simply die of boredom?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Growing up is hard to do ...

I was catching up earlier this evening on a recent South Bank Show - the one where Carol Ann Duffy was interviewed. When Melvyn Bragg asked her to comment on the lack of comment about her sexuality when she was made Poet Laureate, she said: "We're all a lot more grown-up in this country than we used to be..."

All a lot more grown-up. If only that were so. She's forgotten about the Church. Still mixed-up adolescents there, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Having a nosey

There's a newly-posted poem over at frankenstina. Written some time ago, it came to mind as I was playing around on Google Earth, seeing what of interest I could find on Street View. One of their camera points looks directly at our old house in Glasgow, and it felt extremely odd to look at how little it has changed in the years since we sold it (can it really be 5 years? More?). However, one thing the new owners have changed is the door - both doors, actually. For some unknown reason they've matched the neighbours in removing the panels (which were reinforced in steel plate by a paranoid owner during WW1, I think) of the Victorian storm doors and replacing them with glass. And they've obviously put in a modern inner door, with quite pretty glass as far as I can see, but have thereby lost the rather wonderful pale green bevelled panels of glass which were a feature of the original door.

I must admit to having ditched the identical Victorian storm doors in our current house, now replaced by a completely anachronistic and wonderfully insulated, draught-proof, double-glazed, all-singing-all-dancing door from Everest (ok - it neither sings nor dances; if it did I'd ask for my money back). I did it because even installing a lethal wooden door sill didn't stop the howling gale under the inner door even when the storm doors were shut, and I don't regret it for a minute. But I don't see why, if you have a modern inner door, and therefore no need to shut the outer doors during the day, you need light to come through said outer doors. And why, in the name of all that's aesthetically pleasing, paint it black with white highlights?

You'll notice, however, that the windows are still a tasteful green (I think it's called Buckingham Green). They are obviously unchanged from the way they were when I was but a child. This puzzles me, but I shall hold my peace, in a Shakespearian sort of way, and try not to think about how concerned I was about the state of the upstairs window frames just before we sold it. Maybe I was mistaken - or maybe it's a rolling programme.

And thanks, gentle Google, for letting me stare so.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Culture? Go to the bottom of the class

Today's Herald carries a big piece on the anger of the arts world at the philistines who rule us - triggered on this occasion by the "demotion" of Fiona Hyslop to the lowly business of managing the nation's culture. Iain Gray, the hapless Labour leader, has stupidly led with his chin on this one, but hey, he's saying no more than the news reports earlier in the week. It's official: Culture is way down the scale of importance when you're an ambitious politician, and I didn't notice Mike Russell hanging on to the post and regretting that his bum had barely had time to warm that particular ministerial seat.

But hang on. Education ... what are we saying about Education, here? You'd be hard put to it these days, if you dropped in from Mars, to know if culture was part of our educational system. What culture am I talking about? The difficult stuff, the stuff you need cultured, well-educated, well-read, thoughtful, skilled teachers to help you with; the stuff that knows there was culture before 1960 (to pick a date at random); the stuff that layers of knowledge and insight build on to create excitement and excellence.

I feel too similar to the excellent Malcolm Tucker to be persuasively coherent this gloomy, flu-ridden afternoon, an afternoon in which we've had to cancel a carol service because two out of the five singers were too ill to sing. Even that small drop of culture is all to often misunderstood: people seem to think that excellence just happens, like magic, because - hey, you've got gifts, you know, it comes easily to you. Rubbish. It comes now because people like us have spent our lifetimes working to sing better, to learn to sing stylishly and in tune, to produce the sound suited to the music, to be the very best we can at any given performance. And if nobody notices, if nobody really listens, if nobody knows the difference - fine. We do.

And that too is culture.

Picture from the BBC

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The last age ...

I was reminded this evening of how it is possible in the very old to see a sudden glimpse of the person as they must have looked in their youth. The wonderful Thora Hird in one of Alan Bennet's Talking Heads tonight suddenly looked much younger than she had, oh, decades earlier - something to do with the bones under the skin, the loss of the fleshiness that disguises us through our middle years.

I've noticed this before, in people I actually know, though it took a great piece of acting to make me acknowledge it. Shakespeare, I think, must have seen it too - think of the Seven Ages.

And now I'll begin to worry if someone tells me I'm looking younger ...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sounds of the past

It is often said that smells are among the most evocative stimuli, but as I languished in what might well turn out to be the embrace of swine flu I've been thinking about sound and its power to conjure up the past. It began with the sound of my own teeth, chattering. As I curled up in a vain attempt to get warm, that first, shivering night, I could hear them, galloping away in a parody of cold, and the part of me that stays dispassionately aware giggled, somewhere, and remembered ... Scooby Doo.

I have not the least idea if Scooby Doo still appears on the telly, but when Mr B and I first set up home in a relatively bijou flat in Hyndland (red sandstone kid to the last, me) we had the telly in our living room. Actually, that first year we had most of our furniture, other than the bed, in the living room: we couldn't afford to put more than the piano and a bookcase in the large front room until the following summer. This was the first time I'd ever been in the same room as the telly in the early evening, and I used to put it on to keep me company as I learned to cook. (Sorry - read "made the dinner" there). And so it is that the chattering of my own teeth took me, via the chattering of the scared S.D's teeth and the sudden memory of the theme music, back to the time when I worried in case I'd spent too much on meat that wasn't going to last two days and thought that every evening meal should include a pudding.

Lying abed the following day, thinking of nothing at all, really, I suddenly recalled the time when I found myself at a loose end in my own house at the start of my first maternity leave. This was a strange limbo, really, as we were contemplating a move to Dunoon at the time as well as expecting a baby, and two things stand out as markers for memory. One of these is not sound but taste - the taste of Old Jamaica Rum & Raisin chocolate - but the other is the sound of the music that introduced an early afternoon TV programme - Crown Court. I recently discovered it was real music in its own right, for I heard it on Classic FM and it had a name all of its own which Mr B could doubtless supply, were he to hand, but to me it is always two o'clock in 1974 and I'm at home waiting for my first child to arrive. Tatatatatatatumtumtumti...tatatatatatatumtumtumti pom pom....

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Linguistic delights

A bright moment in the midst of the flu-induced gloom which currently swamps my life. An editorial by one of my offspring of which the opening sentence was so beautifully constructed as to belong to an earlier age sent me into paroxysms of maternal delight. Further investigation revealed that there was, in fact, an element of parody involved.

Further explanation of this would be tedious to most and baffling to many, but a chosen few of my readers will understand why a Johnsonian turn of phrase in one's offspring brought a tear to the maternal eye and redeemed an otherwise dreary day.

And now I must desist before my own writing takes on the elements of an 18th century essayist ...