Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let us begin ...

Tomorrow Piskies in this corner of the church - Dunoon, Rothesay and Tighnabruaich, acting in their linked charge capacity for the first time - begin what we hope will be the last act in finding a new Rector. Tomorrow the visit to Rectory and church, the meeting with the Vestry and worship leaders, the informal conversations; on Tuesday the formal interviews. Three people are putting themselves through this process, and ten or so of us here in Dunoon are praying hard for guidance and harmony.

We're praying especially hard because it's been a long year, counting back to when we first heard of the impending departure of the previous incumbent. Some of us are beginning to feel a real hunger for the nourishment that wise leadership can bring. Today, because a former rector celebrated and preached, we were actually fed. I should have been preaching, but you can't run on empty. Tonight I'm thinking of all of us whose lives are about to be changed one way or another.

For now, anyway.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Contrasts recalled

Found myself thinking back to our trip to las Vegas two years ago - one of our "let's escape the tail-end of the Scottish winter trips", another of which I shall soon be off on. A quick look at the flickr set of photos from the trip revealed a pleasing patchwork of colour; I've reproduced a section of it here.

The interesting thing for me is that this particular section represents what I most recall about the trip: the huge contrast between the silent tranquillity of the desert and the frenetic sounds and lights of the city. The desert is all pale blues and greys - even the vegetation has a blue-grey tinge - while the city, and in particular the Strip, is alive with colour. The liveliness, of course, is artificial, as fake as the interiors of the casinos replicating Rome, Venice, Paris. There, the noise is constant: the background of the tunes the one-armed bandits play incessantly, the changed chords for a win, the hum of machines rather than the sound of conversation.

But in the desert there is nothing. No birdsong, no sound of water, no wind, no smells. A purity of place that I have experienced nowhere else. And it is the desert that I remember.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Attitudes to nukes

My February copy of "Nuclear-free Scotland" came yesterday, and two items caught my attention in such a way to remind me of my ongoing paranoia about the place in relation to the peace movement of the church to which I belong. The first was the poster replicated above. It's three years, I think, since last I attended a demo, and I feel the urge to do so again. This one looks as if it could be combined with a pleasurable family visit - though I don't know if her parents would allow my granddaughter to come with me. But the best bit of all came when I saw that tiny, red badge at the right of the list of supporters, just beside the nasty Trident sub. If you don't recognise it, it's the badge of the Scottish Episcopal Church. My church. And I think: yes, things have changed. I don't think I'd be chucked out of the Brownies quite so readily nowadays for being too vocal against nukes.

The second item of interest was chilling. In 1958, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan sent a memo to a member of his Cabinet, Dr Charles Hill. It read:
"It is most important that we should find some way of organising and directing an effective campaign to counter the current agitation against this country's possession of nuclear weapons. This is a question on which the natural emotions of ordinary people would lead them to be critical of the Government's policy, and to accept without question or reason the arguments which our opponents use. ....

...Can we persuade some influential publicists to write articles? Are there any reliable scientists? Or Church of England Bishops?"

Apparently MacMillan "considered whether (he) might write to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him to warn local clergy not to help the (Aldermaston) demonstrators"

A week later, in a memo of April 2nd, he reported:
"Active steps are being taken to identify the intellectuals, Churchmen, scientist and others who support the Government in the controversy over this country's possession of nuclear bombs."

By the following year, Hill reported that "a modest beginning" had been made towards mobilising church support for the H-bomb programme. The folder which produced most of this information (PREM 11/2778) is followed by four others marked 'Closed for the next 100 years'.

Fascinating stuff. But not really so long ago - at a time when our churches were full on Sundays and clergy held in respect by most of society. Makes you wonder, really. I think we're a lot healthier nowadays - as long as senior clergy feel able to resist the temptation to climb onto fences.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts of a domestic goddess

An unusual start to the day: three loads of washing done, and a pot of soup on the stove, and some niggly bits of cleaning in the kitchen - all before I allowed myself to come up to the study. Ok, I admit checking my mail and playing a move in Scrabulous before I even went down to breakfast ... but that doesn't count. Anyway, as I did all this virtuous labour, I thought about why it's not my usual pattern in these my declining years.

It's not that I like working in a scabby environment. I don't feel proud that the toaster as often as not is covered in crumbs, that the breadknife still bore the sticky remnants of the hot loaf it sliced yesterday, that the rings on the hob had burnt bits lurking round them even though I cleaned them - oh, must be a week ago. It's not even that, as I used to pronounce dramatically, I hate housework. Per se, it's even satisfying, in a quiet sort of way. And if vigorous enough it uses up a satisfactory number of calories. So where's the rub? (And isn't that a lovely pun?)

And today I reasoned that there are simply too many other things I'd rather be doing. When you're scrubbing a worktop or washing up the myriad bits that soup-making seems to produce you can listen to the radio, you can sing, you can, I suppose, recite poetry at the top of your voice. But you can't read, do a sudoku, write, surf, play Scrabulous, check Facebook/Twitter, go for a walk, swim, talk on the phone ...

In fact, most of what I did for that hour was think about housework. But at least my kitchen looks clean. For now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Distracting hands

'Straordinary. The BBC's political correspondent was talking tonight on the news and I haven't a clue what she was reporting on because I was totally distracted by ... her hands. No, she wasn't really waving them about much - no unseemly sempahoring - but rather kept them for much of the time discreetly hidden below the frame of the picture.

No, the distracting factor lay in the unsuitability of the woman's gloves. Dressed becomingly in a pale cream coat and an extremely pleasant pale blue scarf, fetchingly shot through with a gold that matched her hair, the reporter was sporting what looked like a pair of gardening gloves. In blue, with dark blue bits round the fingers. And they didn't even look like her own gloves, being large and cumbersome and rendering her fingers like a bunch of blue bananas.

Had some kindly cameraman lent her his gloves after a long wait in the cold? I think we should be told. But what was she talking about again...?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Loudly reading

I was interested to read Neil Winton's post t'other day, and follow through to this post from Bill Boyd - both of them on the importance of reading aloud in the development - and the proof - of literacy skills and understanding of texts. They coincided with my own leading of a short workshop for adults who read aloud - or might want to read aloud - in the context of a church service, and because I'd been thinking about my teaching days after reading the blogs, I think I hit the ground running in a way I might have forgotten about.

Of course, a big hurdle in reading the Bible - in any version - is the sheer complexity of much of it. And perhaps nothing catches out the unwary reader in quite the same way as Paul's letter to the Hebrews, parts of which have begun to appear in the lectionary right now. With my sights firmly on the person who will have to tackle this next Sunday, I decided to base my teaching on just such a passage. The first sentence was five lines long, with crucial punctuation and a wandering "because" that belonged firmly, but to the unwary surprisingly, to the principal clause which followed later in the sentence. (Gosh: that sentence I've just written would be murder to read, huh?) It was great to see pennies dropping about changes in meaning if you got the "because" in the wrong tone of voice, or the destruction of meaning if you came to a halt before the end of the sentence; about the cause of this last fault in the shortness of breath of someone who doesn't know about support and voice production.

The best moment came when we were all ready to have a go at this passage. We'd talked a bit about the difficulty of church acoustics and the deaf lady who always sits in the back row, but working on that in the smallish confines of the church hall kitchen (for there were aspiring liturgists working in pairs in the main hall and we would have disturbed their composition) had its problems. Reader, I solved it. I shut each participant in turn inside the kitchen while the rest of us crammed onto the landing and listened from there. The effect was dramatic, as each in turn sought to communicate meaning to others they couldn't see, realising that a dropped voice or a slurred syllable would be lost and with it most of the sense.

I hope they enjoyed it. We were all pretty loud and hilarious by the end of the session, and everyone had had the chance to offer their take on what was going on. I felt a sense of satisfaction. It was, in fact, a bit like being the teacher ...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Worshipping teachers (not teachers worshipping!)

I found myself reading an account by Robert Service of his schooldays (In A Hillhead Album, if you're interested) in which he told of the blow to his hero worship of a teacher when he caught sight of said teacher reeling drunkenly from a pub one evening. The combination of his memories and the book they were in (and the fact that we both attended the same school, in our respective eras) had me wondering: do pupils still hero-worship teachers?

I have a feeling they may not. I think they may be more savvy, more exposed to media or sporting heroes, flawed or otherwise, in comparison with whom all mortals will appear pallid. And part of me thinks this is probably a good thing: what a huge responsibility to be the object of such worship, such unquestioning devotion, as well as for the literacy or numeracy or whatever of the child.

And yet I think back to my very first teacher, whom I loved; to the Primary 3 teacher who taught us all about wild birds; to the first male teacher I had, in Primary 6, who was the object of devotion of every one of the 20 or so girls in his class (of 40). Such innocent devotion, I fear, lasted only while we were in Primary school; thereafter there tended to be an element of a more gender-orientated frisson involved in my robustly mixed school and we pitied such friends as had been sent to the likes of Laurel Bank and had to suffer grass-green uniforms as well as a completely female environment. But were these teachers in fact more worthy of devotion than unknown celebrities? And does this sort of thing still happen?

So: if you're still in the classroom, are you aware of pupils adoring you? How do you feel about it if you are? Does it irritate you or flatter? And do you attempt to put them off? Or is this something belonging to a more innocent past when the world was a much smaller place?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

WiiFit has us in fits

One of the more hilarious activities of my week so far involved a visit to my sister to play with her new toy. Saying that makes me sound about ten years old; in many ways that's what it felt like as we explored the joys of the WiiFit.

If you don't know what this is, picture a plastic rectangle rather like a set of bathroom scales, set on the floor in front of the telly to which it is connected by a wire. You stand on this, preferably in your bare feet (ok, your socks if you prefer), holding in your hand what looks and feels like a cordless telephone handset. The difference is that this is securely attached to you by a wrist strap, for reasons that became obvious when I began the sword-fighting game ... but I'll come back to that.

We began sedately enough, standing on the floor pad while the machine calibrated our age as represented by our ability to be well-balanced ("Do you fall over frequently?") and told us how ideal (or not) our BMI was. The balance exercises include such sports as ski-ing down a slalom, ski-jumping and snowboarding, for which you turn the footboard so that you stand with one foot nearer the telly than the other. You get the picture? You direct your skis by swaying your body from one side to another; you go faster by leaning forward; you do a ski jump by straightening your legs and holding the tip-toe pose while your avatar soars through the air - or not.

I've gone through all this to create the scene when Mr B took to the board. By this time my sister and I were getting wellied into the prosecco, and as Mr B swayed and crashed his way down the virtual slopes, we sat on the sofa with our glasses, swaying in unison, shrieking and giggling helplessly. It was wonderful. Later, I brought out an aggressive streak when I attempted the sword fighting, lunging dangerously close to the screen while attacking my opponent to a chorus of "Watch the telly!" The next day I ached in all sorts of strange places. Guess it might even have had some physical effect.

But the best effect of all came from the unbridled hilarity. Go on - try it.

New poem

I've posted a new poem on frankenstina - this year's somewhat bleak take on the journey of the Magi. I wonder how many of us look at people around us, on the same journey as ourselves, and wonder if they're as confident as they seem about it. Are they wondering, as Eliot's magi did, if this is all folly?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

We've (not) done it!

So the SEC – those in Glasgow and Galloway anyway - didn’t choose the first female bishop in the UK. And that’s what the media focus on, just as that was what they focussed on over the whole election. I bet there’s not a cheep out of the Beeb when it comes to the Episcopal election in Argyll and The Isles – not, unless, there’s a number of things which might and might not take place in the electoral procedure before the public stage.

A long, long time ago, when I was young and impressionable and did what Bishops told me, I was on the old Provincial Synod at the time when it was debating the ordination of women. I was, I think, the youngest lay person (not hard – we were in a small minority) and may have been the youngest person there. Just before we were due to travel to Perth for the meeting, Mr B received a phone call from the then Bishop of Argyll. Actually the call was for me, but I was out gadding. The message was brief and succinct: For God’s sake, our bishop said, just tell Christine not to vote for women priests.

The messages here are so glaring that, writing this down, I can scarcely believe it happened. Look at the assumptions: that I would do what my husband told me and what the bishop told me, that a message without discussion would suffice, that there was no need to make more of it because the idea was so crazy anyway. And you know, in that body at that time the idea was crazy. We’ve come a long way since I was the new kid on the SEC block.

But we haven’t come far enough.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Further adventures with a bi-lingual child

Originally uploaded by Morgane McIntosh.
The other day Mr B and I took our granddaughter out to lunch. We allowed her mother and her French grandmother to come too, and you can see from the photo how at home Catriona is in a restaurant. What fascinated me, however, was a further exploration of the life of a bi-lingual child as her vocabulary and understanding expand at an incredible rate.

When we arrived, she was playing on the floor with Peppa Pig and company - and Mamie (French for "Grandma"). Every word of the conversation was in French. And then we arrived - and were addressed instantly in English. No hesitation, no trying out French on us: it simply wasn't appropriate.

During lunch, the same easy switch, depending on the person addressed: restaurant staff and ourselves in English, Mum and Mamie in French - unless Mum was speaking English. But when we had returned to the house and were being shown a new book I realised something else that has recently begun to dawn on me. The book in question was the story of the Three Little Pigs - in French. Like the first Babar book I ever owned, it had text written in a cursive style - lots of it. Now, I must admit that Catriona is currently more interested in the pictures of le Grand M├ęchant Loup - and yes, that's the order the words came in and this apparently happens, for I asked - with a mere paraphrase of what's happening to him. But I was fascinated to note that the subjunctive of a verb was used - of course it was! - without any fuss. Children don't know it's the subjunctive; they just use it because that's what you have to say in certain circumstances. And I thought of the wretchedly small number of subjunctives I actually know in French, and how late on in my French learning career I picked them up, and reflected on how good it was for my continuing education to read these books to my grandchild.

Add that to her precocious enjoyment of a silly voice I once used to say "Hello" - very deep and English-accented - and her ability to mimic it perfectly, and you have a wonderful five hours of exploring language. She, of course, was just having fun. And so was I.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shiverclyde Royal

This, one of my best online prezzies, came the other evening from my amigo Mad Priest. I have to tell you I feel I've arrived, blogistically, to be the subject of one of his creative flings. I shall bear it in mind when I go tomorrow for a second attempt at getting my blood to the lab over the water. Watch this space.

While on the subject of Inverclyde Royal, I have to say what a strange institution it is. For those who have never been, you reach it by driving off the Gourock-Glasgow road just as you leave Gourock town centre; you drive up and up an impossibly steep hill and then turn into a bleak road at the very top of the inhabited area. There, in a hollow at the top of the hills behind the town (so there's no view from the windows, despite the wonderful vista from the first steep road) lies a kind of Borg ship in brown, a great cube of a building surrounded by zillions of parked cars. (I once managed to park in this car park. Never again) You drive past it and turn into a large overflow car park on the opposite side of the road. At this altitude the snow, thawing elsewhere, is still lying thick and brown. You paddle through the slush to the road, turn in the teeth of the wind and march down to the main gate. A further brisk walk over three pedestrian crossings finds you at the main entrance, adorned by the usual shivering smokers.

I remarked to Mr B as we undertook this ordeal that I very much don't want to die in this hospital. Even without getting into it you feel the bleakness of the site; inside was no better. They are refurbishing the bit I was in, and the painters, joiners and electricians were everywhere. Apparently they don't finish one area before moving on to destroy the next, so the whole X-ray department was a building site. "Keep your shoes on," I was told; "the floor's filthy."

I used to think of hospitals as warm places, where at least taking off your outdoor clothes seemed a good idea. Not any more. Just think gooseflesh, cold gel for an ultrasound, a thin cotton goonie. The only aspect of the whole visit which bore some resemblance to what we hope for when we're out of sorts was the staff. The nurses and radiologists were cheerful, friendly and sympathetic. But they are working in a desert.

And they said they didn't think there were any vampires on the staff. They would, though - wouldn't they?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bottle-fed vampires?

As a fan of the BBC series Being Human, I might be forgiven the odd flight of fancy about the ubiquity of vampires and other interesting species. But in fact I have never thought twice about any such thing - until today. For today I had a phone call from the surgery, where last week I had a specimen of blood taken for analysis to find out why I had such a painful Christmas day.

The receptionist was apologetic. Could I, she wondered, come back to the surgery on Friday - and give them some more blood? Slight panic. Had my last lot thrown up some weird symptoms which required further analysis? No. Instead they had had a letter from the lab "on the other side" (not another allusion to vampires, but the local parlance for Inverclyde Royal) to say no specimen had been received.

Now, I reason that if the lab is writing about my blood, then they must have expected to have found some. Otherwise how did they know I even exist? And I certainly saw - and felt - the syringe full being withdrawn and carefully bottled and labelled. I should have suspected something when the practice nurse said cheerily "See you soon" - and been properly pessimistic when she added "There's been a lot of this stuff for the lab going missing recently."

The receptionist who rang today tells me that the labs have been supplying new bottles for samples in transit, and they seem to be the problem. But I think that's a truly lame explanation. No, I'm pretty sure there must be vampires in Inverclyde, vampires of a squeamish disposition who prefer their blood in bottles. Or maybe bottle-fed vampire infants.

Meanwhile I have to part with more blood. I'll have an empty arm at this rate. But I'd be fascinated to find out if anyone else has come across this most recent nonsense. Or even a better explanation.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Poetic blethers?

I recently made a Tweet Cloud showing the chief preoccupations of my tweets. For ages now I've been meaning to take the results and turn them into a kind-of-poem; here, before the potatoes are ready to go in the oven, is the result. I rather like it.


Practice happy rain late
watching blog stuff, remember
dinner people feel, singing maybe,
live, wonderful, gone strange night -
afternoon, nice weather, garden doing.
Warm looks road, ferry lovely.
Tweet writing hard, wondering
left look, preparing home.
Family. Glasgow. Post.
Thank, actually, evening photos,
coffee, love, news, sleep.
Dunoon flickr minutes glad -
tonight, morning meeting.
Sorry, sunny London - time
getting Catriona, Alan, hours
mean holiday round looking,
trip, thanks. Pics till Oban
there's walk hope
train choir heading
thinking tomorrow dark,
hair trying, waiting lunch.
Little life:
Edinburgh, Argyll -

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ups and downs in the ice age

This beautiful, difficult, challenging, cheering weather! What a time to be without a camera (mine jammed on Boxing Day and won't even be seen by anyone till Monday, weather permitting) - the photo of the afterglow on the hills to the north was taken on my phone, cropped and digitised using
shock my pic, a process which imparts a touch of the Van Gogh in place of the fuzzy focus of my phone in all but the best light. I hadn't realised what an addict I was until I couldn't take photos any more.

Now that we seem to have settled into a routine more familiar in Canada or Scandinavia (I exaggerate, but never mind) I have had time to think about the good and bad sides of this existence. Top of the bad pile must come the frozen waste pipe from our kitchen this morning. This pipe has frozen once before in our time here, during the fearsome cold snap which saw the first visit of Mrs Tosh to Dunoon. The chill in the house (because we kept going outside to empty the basin) and on the train journey home contributed to a determination never to return to Dunoon if the month had an r in it. (I'm glad she repented, slightly). Anyway, the pressure of trying to drain into this frozen pipe blew apart a join in the waste pipe from the washing machine, with a great rush of water behind the kitchen units driving me and Mr B into paroxysms of despair. But the good pile was crowned by the appearance, three hours later, of a plumber and his mate, who thawed the pipe with their blowtorch and reconnected the washing machine. The best bit was that the mate was once a renowned miscreant at school, who admitted to his name with a wry grin as we assured him that today, no matter what he had been, we loved him.

Another goody is the justification of my purchase, in November, of a super-warm, super-expensive goose-down gilet. Along with a fleece I bought 20 years ago and rarely wore because it was too warm, it has hardly been off my back. Ditto the expensive, 15 year old Italian fur-lined boots. Ditto the central heating we installed - our first - in August. Baddies? I'm tired of feeling like Michelin lady; I hate my hat-flattened hair; I'm bored with walking only on the shore road because Mr B has not yet managed to get spikey doo-dahs for his feet and the forest paths are lethal. And sometimes I'm fed up being so cold if I go outside without putting everything on.

But a last, positive thought: when you're cold, do you use up more calories in simply existing?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Twitching, slightly.

..complete with robin.
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The Monday before Christmas, I bought this bird table. I've wanted one for ages, but lacked the will to do anything about it. But on that particular snowy morning, having my family - half of it anyway - visiting and making things seem possible (could be because I didn't have to find a way to get the already-made-up table up the hill from the shop: Neil carried it) I bought one of the last three remaining and stuck it up outside my dining-room window.

And it's been a joy, I have to say. I couldn't have known then how long this frozen weather would continue, so that there would be even more need for the stuff I put on it. But now there's a fat-ball hanging from a corner, and I put daily doses of warm water in a tiny bird-bath thingy in the border just beside the table, and stood earlier this afternoon watching a blue tit drink the water, pop onto the table, swing briefly from the peanut-frame under the roof, pick up a seed or two and fly off. Reader, I felt positively proprietorial.

Current regulars include a pair of beautiful ringed doves, that robin and an army of assorted tits. Others, under the generic title 'wee brown jobs' come and go. I need to get more of the black seeds that they all seem to prefer, but so far so ornithological. I never thought I'd see the day ...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Frozen assets

Toward Point ..
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This photo shows why I live in this inconvenient place. It's stunningly beautiful just now - I can't recall a time when cold weather lasted so long or so fiercely here, where we're more used to grey skies and rain and any snow turning rapidly to slush. Today the temperature never got above freezing, despite the sun; it was, however, much less chilling than yesterday, when on this particular bit of coast the wind was blowing straight in our faces.

Actually, if this weather continues, we may get sick of always walking along the shoreline (everywhere away from the sea is a sheet of ice unless gritted) but for now, it's a joy. And it's a joy to be able to wear the really warm clothes I've had for years because they so seldom get out - the warm Goas of Rohan's back catalogue (fleece-lined windproof breeks), the double-sided fleece that usually makes me sweat just to look at it, the expensive goose-down gilet I splashed out on a couple of months ago.

But lest I sound too smug, here's where I record my sympathy for all my readers who have no water, whether in Arran or in Glen Lean or in Seil, those whose boilers (in Paisley) are malfunctioning. Just try to be your usual fragrant selves when next we meet, huh?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

What am I listening to?

I don't tend to listen to any particular music more than once in any given time unless I'm learning it: in a house full of live music and CDs and Radio 3 there seems not enough time in any life to go over and over the one piece. I suppose that's why I tend not to listen to music on my iPod - talking books or poetry seem more appealing. But after joining briefly in Kelvin's little chat about the perceived boredom factor of the King's College carol service, I found myself arrested by a lovely piece of music in a great performance and thinking: This is what I am listening to, right now, and it's special.

"This" was a piece of choral music, Nesciens Mater, by Jean Mouton. His real name was apparently Jean de Holluige, and scholars have yet to discover why he was known as "Mouton", but he was born in the Pas de Calais before 1459 and rose to become court composer to the French kings Louis XII and Francis I. The motet I was hearing is based partly on plainsong melodies, distributed among eight voices in an elaborate canon - but that's not what you hear. Instead the music transcends its mathematically precise construction to create a wonderfully spiritual, contemplative meditation on the Virgin Birth - magical, really. And the performance, by the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardner, was perfect.

And that brings me back to what I was trying to say about the King's service. Ok, I made the point that every time they sing this service there is someone coming to it for the first time - look here for this year's example of discovery - and it is good that what they hear should be flawless. But is it necessary to assume that the perfection born of months of practice and disciplined learning is boring? Boring for whom? Maybe those of us who grew up with Carols for Choirs may indeed feel we don't want to sing the Willcocks descant to "O Come all ye Faithful" again - but you try singing another one and you'll soon realise, if you're musical enough, why the Willcocks has survived so long.

I hinted a couple of posts ago that the magic does go out of some of the familiar seasonal rituals as we grow older. It's be a bit sad if it didn't. But I don't think we should equate our need to provide what we see as new and exciting with the need of others to experience it - expecially at Christmas. Now, go and find that BBC record* with the Jean Mouton on it, and forget everything else.

*BBC Music Magazine Collection, Vol.16 No.4: Christmas Choral Music