Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dancing - with midges*

I'm back. I've been wandering in London and rural France, but right now I need to talk about ... dancing. Perhaps it's the tender toes and the fact that I slept till 9am for the first time in years that press me to this, but I shall return to considering life in France and even the matter of dull Synod procedures, I promise.

But dancing. I don't do much of it these days, not since I jiggered knees and toe joints in an ill-advised adventure with tap-dancing about ten years ago. Last night, however, I was at a fund-raising ceilidh-dance (the things I do for the church!) in the Uig Hall - and had a ball. First, a little scene-setting. The Uig Hall is a remarkably well-equipped little hall beside the River Echaig, surrounded by trees, below the hills that flank Loch Eck. It is a charming setting, and it is plagued by midges on warm summer evenings. Yesterday, under a wonderful yellow moon, there were millions of them. And in the heat of the evening, several windows were opened ...

The band was just right. The Old Bores, including my old ami JK, use minimal amplification for their mandolins and guitars, and one can still talk while they play. Much of the time, however, I was dancing, as memories of how to do Barn Dances and St Bernard's Waltzes crept back and I shoved a French friend through the intricacies of the Dashing White Sergeant. And when it was all over, and I found myself drying glasses (on paper towels!) in the kitchen, one of the country dance people said to me "You've danced before".

I don't think of myself as a dancer, yet I was sent to Eurythmics at the age of three and a dancing class that involved the rudiments of ballet at the age of five - quite apart from the ballroom dancing classes at Roger McEwan's in my teens where dancing and getting off with boys vied for one's attention but where I did learn a nifty quickstep. We also had to learn country dances at school, in preparation for Christmas dances and the mass performances in the playground at the school fete - oh, the horrors of dancing on concrete. I guess it was just part of growing up.

But it was later on in life that I realised that not everyone does this. Not everyone who takes to the dance floor automatically moves in time with the music, feels the first beat of the bar, finds their weight rising onto toes as they move, like a rider rising to the trot (no - I don't ride). And it is this, I think, that makes the difference, more than remembered moves or intricate steps. My father could dance an elegant foxtrot without really moving at all in his later years, and bore no resemblance at all to people who can move round the floor without apparently hearing the music.

Go and watch. Look at a film where there is dancing as a backdrop to some action. See if you notice anyone moving in time, and observe the strange rhythmless gait of the others. I've always noticed this, right from the first time a seven-year-old boy put his sweaty paw on my pink taffeta. So I guess she was right, that lady. I have danced before.

Sorry, Andrew - it's too good not to use!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Synod - a personal take

I spent the end of the week at the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church. You can read all about it here, where you can also listen to the speech from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA (pictured, rather distantly, with my phone), and you can pick up more personal takes on blogs like Kenny's. I didn't take my laptop - too heavy, too uncomfortable to sit in the pews at the side where the bloggers lurk, and to be honest, too tempting to sit surfing in moments of tedium.

And there were such moments. It is my contention that no-one aspiring to address a hall full of people should be allowed to be boring, no matter what they're talking about. Balance-sheets, maybe - but there are interesting nuggets hidden away in there, like the average giving of each communicant in the church (quite shockingly low), or the discrepancy between numbers on rolls and actual bums on seats on the Sunday next before Advent. But I'm pushing a point here. I know there has to be a business-like approach to pensions and quota and all the stuff I find personally so daunting. However, we are all sent the papers in ample time to read them from cover to cover - and yes, we can all read. So why, in the name of charity, do speakers insist on putting up Powerpoint slides and then reading them out aloud? Or explaining maps that we're quite capable of interpreting?

And another thing. When is everyone going to realise that if they're going to read every word of an address, verbatim, from the paper in front of them, they will have to work hard to produce a paper in the register of speech? It is soul-destroying to sit, on an aching posterior, with a sore back and restless feet, listening to a monotone voice reading a written report which the speaker shows no signs of having mastered sufficiently to interpret in any way. Surely if someone has worked with a committee and laboured over its report, they can then set aside the written document and speak about the highlights?

I'd like to suggest a self-check for speakers: Are you enjoying yourself? Are you gripped by the thing you're saying, right now? Are you communicating that passion? No? Then think again. Try another tack. For if you're bored, or unable to convey the sense of that convoluted sentence without hesitating, what chance do your listeners have? In fact, what chance is there that they're still awake?

Of course there were great moments, witty speeches, ad-libbing and hilarity. But apart from the social aspect of Synod, I regard attendance at it as a kind of penance. And that's a shame.

On a brighter note, this morning I returned to the worship of my own wee church. Last week I worshipped with a bevy of bishops, a clutch of clergy, several dozens of delegates. The organ was loud and the singing confident. The liturgy was at times involving (though at times the reverse). But nothing happened. Not for me, anyway. This morning there was no priest - he was in Rothesay - and there was a congregation of about 15. The singing was gentle (but in tune!) and the organ is a computer (but in the hands of a fine musician). We received communion from the Reserved Sacrament.

But the magic was there, there in a way that reminded me of why I hadn't headed for the hills. Whew!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Holy Fanfic

Ever read a book that has been recommended by a friend, that bears on its back cover glowing reviews from sources you usually trust - and find yourself wondering what got into them all? My Name was Judas, by C.K.Stead, is such a book - at least, for me it turned out to be a dead loss.

Actually, I've just seen a comment on the Amazon page which hints at the heart of the matter - even though that particular reviewer, in the Observer, claimed that the book avoided being "a ghastly primary school exercise" by being written "with aplomb". I'm afraid I disagree. This book, as the friend who recommended it said, comes very close to the genre of fanfiction, in which (usually) amateur writers embroider stories onto existing situations, involving existing characters whose every move is already familiar to the fans who make up the primary target of their writing. As the constraints of the genre mean that nothing should deviate from what the original canon suggests might be possible, there is little room for real characterisation or imagination, and much of the appreciation of the new story depends on an intimate knowledge of the original.

And that is what is wrong with this book. A reader unfamiliar with the gospel story would struggle to follow the psychology of the narrator and the relationship with the man Jesus - a figure who is endlessly described but never becomes real. As in a schoolchild's first attempt at fiction, appearance is used as a substitute for any real insight, and Judas' scepticism is continually stressed without any real attempt to explain its origin. We are expected to know about the miracles, the mysterious feeding of multitudes, and be interested by the ingenuity of the narrator's debunking of each of them.

The writing is banal, and the "poems" with which each chapter ends are merely risible (Judas in his old age - and no, he didn't die, folks - is apparently a poet). I'm afraid I can only compare it with the exercise in Standard Grade Reading, in which the student is asked to write a new take on some aspect of a set text - compare it, and award it a Credit grade, but no more.

And as for Alan Massie, James Wood and these other critics from the Sunday Times and the Guardian, I don't know what they were thinking of. I hope they had too many books to read that week, and simply didn't bother.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A new shepherd!

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Yesterday - joyous yesterday - marked the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one for Holy Trinity Dunoon. It's been over a year since our congregation set off on the adventure of a road with only a map to guide us; now we have a leader again. In his sermon during yesterday's service of introduction for Andrew our new priest, +Mark, the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness,* gave us a wonderful vision - a vision of sheep. I'm no expert on sheep, so I've forgotten the varieties involved, but it was clear that he considers us the kind of flock who might wander round the back of any shepherd who attempted to drive us from the rear. Andrew, proclaimed the bishop, should emulate those shepherds who march confidently ahead of their flock, not looking back to check if we're still there.

We were certainly there yesterday, with visitors, the local MP, clergy from the C of S and the RC churches - and golly, did we raise the roof. Mr B had written a new setting of the lovely Celtic blessing - "May the road rise to meet you ...", we sang his (and therefore our own) setting of the liturgy, we laughed and smiled and felt solemn and joyful, and at the end of it all, when we knew that all the official stuff that puts Andrew in charge of us had been done in good order, we applauded. And then we sang again.

And then the Marthas (with me at their head, not looking back ....) charged from the church, down the grassy path thoughtfully mowed through the field, into the strategically-parked cars and off to the RC church hall to assemble a fabby feast. None of your finger buffets here: this was an abundance of hot dishes, salads and exotic puddings to sustain the wandering bishop on his homeward journey (you'll gather there are many journeyings for Piskies in this narrative). The party went on long enough for several of us to have missed Doctor Who, but the sun shone and it really did seem as if being a Christian was a feasible option after all.

I cannot, however, end on this uncharacteristically Pollyanna note. Mention of Doctor Who brings me back to the church car-park, where a Tardis had materialised in the shape of a Portaloo perched perilously on the edge of the steep drop down to Kilbride Road. Despite our misgivings, no-one reversed into it, and no-one was catapulted inside it to instant ignominy among the rhododendrons. It served its purpose, and by the time we returned this morning it had vanished.

Just like the Tardis, really.

And I have to report that, the bishop's recurring nightmare about shrinking pulpits notwithstanding, Andrew preached from said pulpit this morning. It didn't shrink.

See? I was listening...

*In case you're wondering why we have to have a bishop from so far away, it's because he's looking after Argyll right now. We are waiting for the College of Bishops to find us a new one. Come on, chaps ...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Knowledge of Angels

I recently read this extraordinary book, Knowledge of Angels" by Jill Paton Walsh. It's a novel, but it's also a fable, and it's beautifully written. It's a series of philosophical arguments and a succession of brilliant illuminations that leads to an inevitable and painful conclusion.

The story of the mysterious stranger who swims ashore after being swept overboard from his ship, finding himself on an island ruled by a cardinal prince, is juxtaposed with the tale of the wolf-child being cared for and tamed by a community of nuns. The stranger is faced with the demand that he identify himself as "Christian, Saracen or Jew"; the child is faced by questions about its knowledge of anything that might be recognised as God. Both stories unfold towards each other, and the fate of one character depends on the responses of the other.

In the end I was left with the question asked by Palinor, the stranger, as "he wondered ruefully why it is that those who believe most passionately in a merciful deity who are themselves most murderous and cruel." The conclusion, coming almost as an epilogue, is inevitable and disheartening. It's not a book I can readily summarise, as the fascination lies in the beauty and the logic and the innocence and the guilt - so all I can suggest is that you read it, and ponder.