Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reflection on Gaudi

La Perdrera: like soldiers
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I realise as I reflect on the Barcelona trip that by far the greatest single influence on my photos and on my memories is the work of Antoni Gaudi, previously known to me only as the creator of the crane-surrounded towers of La Sagrada Familia. The photo here is of the roof terrace of Casa Milà, 'La Perdrera', the extraordinary apartment block in Barcelona, so nicknamed because the façade looks like solid rock (the name means "the stone quarry").

The apartments we saw on one of the upper floors was fascinating in its early 20th century domestic detail, but the real joy was the roof terrace, with its serried ranks of helmeted chimneys and ventilators like soldiers of Sparta or Middle Earth, glittering with tile work (the trencadis, or broken ceramic pieces) or smooth concrete. Wandering the undulating walkways in the bright sun was an exhilarating experience, at once surreal and calming, as if the equilibrium between earth and sky was mirrored in the architecture.

A comment on my earlier post about La Sagrada Familia suggested that it was a waste of resources to complete a building that belonged to the tastes of a previous era, and while I always acknowledge that de gustibus non est disputandum, I shall dispute the idea that resources spent on art are wasted. Many years ago, a teacher I admired gave me notes he'd used in teaching poetry to recalcitrant adolescents, the first words of which were: Poetry, like all the arts, is useless. It went on to enumerate the benefits to the spirit of art, but that first line never failed to bring forth a protest.

Yes, we can concentrate on feeding the poor and ensuring that people are properly housed, and such are the proper aims of society. But any society that cannot find the lightness of spirit - and yes, maybe the lunacy - to invest in something of beauty (taste, again!) misses something really important, I think. And of course, we can argue that all these workmen drilling and cutting and polishing in La Segrada Familia are being paid to do so, and their families are better off because of their labour, and the community benefits from all the paying punters like me who go to gaze and wonder.

No, I was thrilled by what I saw - the Basilica, the unfinished Crypt in Colonia Güell, and this, La Perdrera - and enthused in a way I've not felt in many places. As for the taste of another age - well, there are all these Perpendicular and Norman buildings calling out for restoration and upkeep, all over England, and we don't tend to disparage their even older style, do we? And as for the method of designing these wonderful structures - the hanging bags of lead shot suspended over mirrors that you can see here - this left me gobsmacked.

I'm glad that, even in this rational age, we're still a bit crazy,

Monday, September 27, 2010

Montserrat and Deus Absconditus

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
All the guide books and sites tell you that a visit to Montserrat from Barcelona is a must. We did the trip on a pretty overcast day, when the famously jagged peak of the mountain - or peaks, for there are so many of them, great rounded fingers of rock pointing into the sky - were drifted with cloud and the Benedictine Abbey overhung with gloom. The crowds were huge - the weather didn't seem to have put anyone off, and by the time we entered the Abbey church we had to hunt for a seat.

It was not that we were all overcome by a need to be holy - of that more in a minute - but that the famous boys' choir sings at 1pm daily. And sure enough, after a few prayers in several languages, there they were. Beautiful voices, yes - though nothing that those of us familiar with the English Cathedral tradition wouldn't recognise. The direction, however, left much to be desired, with a slack beat and flaccid rhythm, and the arrangement of the traditional song they performed was wooden and uninspired.

This pause in the church, however, left space for reflection. The original monks who had struggled up here to found their community were presumably seeking God in the solitude and the silence of the peaks, and in the photo I've chosen you can perhaps get some sense of that - I've managed to lose most of the crowds. But nowadays hordes of tourists flock there, as we did, lighting candles, taking photos (with varying degrees of aggression), shuffling, eating and shopping - and I had the distinct impression of a Deus absconditus, a God who wasn't there any more.

It's at moments like these that I think of our own empty mountains, or of the wind howling through the peaks when the tourists have gone, and experience a strong fellow-feeling with those who say they don't need church to find the presence of God. We humans, we have a terrible tendency - do we not? - to crowd God out, to replace the divine with the digital and the spiritual with the sensual.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cool St George's

As it's Sunday, and as it's a day when my own little church seemed the only place to be, with great singing, good silences and considerable warmth (and not just because we put the heating on for the first time in months!), I find myself reflecting on my church experience last week, in Barcelona. I feel a vivid present coming on ...

The taxi drivers have been really challenged by our need to find the Anglican church in Barcelona. Indeed, some of us might have plumped for the Cathedral, but mindful of the sense of duty of at least one of our number we've gone ex-pat English and find ourselves ploughing up a hill in the Bearsden of Barcelona, surrounded by pretty houses and walled gardens. A sign, in English, reassures us that we are indeed in the right neck of the woods for St George's, and, only slightly late, we abandon our church-free comrade and head into the white, shade-surrounded building from which the sound of singing and guitar can already be heard. We find a pew at the rear, occupied by only one person, and slide in. Four of us. Note this: we are not invisible. The service hasn't really begun - they're just singing. The words, along with pretty slides, are projected on the white wall, but we know none of the songs and remain silent.

The chaplain is wearing an ordinary blue striped shirt with a dog collar. He is playing a guitar, which he puts down in between the (frequent) singing breaks. He opens the service, and we find our way to the correct bit in the laminated sheet. The liturgy is at once familiar and strange. Big chunks of what I am accustomed to appear to be missing, including a bit of the Consecration Prayer. It is all very evangelical - and yet, when we come to the Peace, no-one so much as acknowledges that we're strangers. The Intercessions are of the kind I use for my spoof worksheets on "Not the Intercessions" - I could make up a whole new lesson based on this example. The lady in question obviously doesn't know that God is omniscient. She also takes the chance to read a big chunk of the Bible in mid-intercession. I take to reading the pew leaflet. We are encouraged to indicate whether we'd prefer wine or non-alcoholic, wafer or bread. But there is no indication of how to achieve this, so we line up for communion in hope that the handsomely ancient-looking chalices hold the real stuff. The bread is a dire warning - a small fragment of pitta bread clings forlornly to the palate. The chalice holds something with ... bubbles. It tastes like Ribena. We sit down again.

By the time the Sunday School have sung a song to demonstrate how they spent their time, and two notices have taken ten minutes and have included, somehow, a puff for a travel guide, we have had enough. We have someone waiting outside and we've been here for almost 90 minutes. We know they will sing again. It is time to go. On the way out, we avail ourselves of their pristine facilities and reflect that whatever we think about the service this church, unlike ours, has a loo.

In short, it was a dire experience. The prayers - implying the Godlessness of Barcelona - made us think that if you weren't 'wanny us' you were doomed. It was Little England, with a touch of the USA abroad. One woman followed us out as we left - "will you not be coming for coffee?" We pointed out that it was rather a long service, and were told that it was because they loved being together. We smiled, nicely, and said it was rather longer than we were used to and we had obligations elsewhere. But this was the first smile, the first acknowledgement of our presence in this church - four of us, mind.

I suspect I sound like a girn. But if this was my first experience of church, of Christianity, it would also be my last. How many people have such an experience? Let's make sure that they never, ever, have it anywhere we worship in. And let's make sure that the stranger in our midst is welcomed, warmly and genuinely.

Even if she does arrive late.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Window on the future

Windows in the forest
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A highlight of the recent Fahrt to Barcelona was the visit to La Segrada Familia - the iconic, unfinished basilica which I first noticed while trying to text-wrap round an image of its towers for the school's entry in a newspaper competition. We ran a school trips section, and this particular photo taxed my fairly rudimentary skills with Pagemaker. But the jumble of towers and cranes seen from the streets of Barcelona give little indication of what is inside.

I'm used to gloom and relative silence inside the ecclesiastical buildings I've visited (there are many). Not here. Strangely, it was not the bedlam of workmen who have to make the interior ready for the Papal visit in November that made the greatest impression. It was the light - a pale, greenish/pinkish glow that suggested a mystery beyond the merely holy - the mystery of life itself. The columns are organic in their construction, arching up like great trees to split into smaller branches and then into leaf-like fans supporting the ceiling. They seem to be in no recognisable pattern, and yet nothing seems out of place. The flow of stone is elegant and natural, and the light from windows - stained glass or otherwise - permeates the space from hundreds of openings. We were told of plans to fill some of the light-apertures with coloured glass - I think the accompanying photo shows how this might look (at the top of the pillar in the middle ground)

Outside, I was aware of the contrast between the sculptures round the door we had entered by and the ones on the Passion Façade by which we left. The older are of conventional style, though placed among Gaudi's fantastically melting stonework as in a gigantic dripping candle. On the Passion façade, however, Subirach's sculpture is starkly modern, almost cubist in appearance, and intensely powerful, as the road to the Cross is depicted as an upward path on the Western side of the building. Some of the detail escaped me in the bright midday sun - I only noticed the women covering their faces when I looked at the photos I had taken.

If it does indeed take another 20 years for this amazing building to be completed, it is unlikely that I shall see it. But even as it is, Gaudi's vision has transformed my idea of what a church can be. I shall never be satisfied again!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sunny Barcelona!

Sunny Barcelona!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This is where I've been for the past week - not stuck on the beach, natch, but indulging in various cultural pursuits and some less so, in the company of 52 other people. Think a school trip for adults and you'll get the flavour: a holiday where the individual participant only has to worry about being in the right place at the right time to catch the bus. You can find further information on the concept of the Fahrt (for this, Best Beloved, is its name) on Rev Ruth's blog, along with the actual diary of what we did; rather than reduplicate her work I shall allow myself the luxury of random comment.

There was something surreal in our swift transition from the rain and the dark of Linlithgow at 5am (for Fahrts are based in that august town), via the instant porridge that I ate at Prestwick Airport, to the warm sun and superb beach at Barcelona. I'd seen the forecast and was determined to swim in the sea - not something I've done so far this summer - and did just that, returning up the road to the hotel with the unmistakable holiday feeling of sand between the toes and salty skin.

Out hotel, the Villa Olympic, was one built for the Barcelona Olympics; Bruce our Obersturmbannführer (love the wee dots; not so sure about the spelling) told us to expect quite a swish hotel in an area reminiscent of Leith before gentrification set in. It was noteable chiefly for the interesting layout of the rooms - the first thing you saw when you opened the door was the bath, and there was a great deal of glass, strategically frosted - and the unpredictability of the lifts. It was not uncommon to find frustrated Fahrters soaring from ground floor to sixth and back again when they really wanted floor 2, and you had to use your key to activate it unless you were going straight down and hadn't fouled everything up so that it ground to a halt. This was especially entertaining on the night of The Flood, when a sudden burst pipe in one of the group's rooms dripped down two floors into the foyer and along the corridor. Fiona was in the middle of a hysterical ride when I joined her in the lift and promptly jiggered it; I had a vision of us having to break out through the roof but survived.

By the time we went to bed on the first night a night club was throbbing incessantly a couple of streets away, and the second day saw most of us who had rear-facing rooms switching to the front of the hotel. It also saw us visit La Sagrada Familia - but that's another story for another day. The flooded Fahrters, by the way, were rehoused. In a suite. It's tough being a Fahrter.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I'm heading off for a few days - think a bit of sun, about 10º increase in temperature, a few friends - so won't be moderating any comments till I get back. If I find time/energy/a signal I may post the odd thing, but my phone's been acting strangely. I shall, however, be able to read any comment you care to leave ...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where were you when ...

I've been watching some of the TV programmes marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, including what seemed to me a well-made film about the passengers who foiled the fourth attack by re-taking their hijacked plane. But inside my head I was re-running the film of my own experience of that day nine years ago.

I was just outside my classroom door after the lunch break when my mobile phone rang. While my class filed in and settled themselves, I took the call. It was Number One son, in the Guardian offices in London. He sounded incredulous, interested, sharing a story with me. There had been a freak accident - a small plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. Ignoramus that I was, I had to ask where exactly this was, had to be told that it consisted of two massive towers. Strange now, to think that I didn't know. As we spoke, he suddenly broke off. He was watching the live monitors in the newsroom, and there was another plane - surely not - yes, it too had flown into the second tower. I felt as if I was witnessing it myself, as I became aware that the second year pupils in front of me had stopped chatting, that the room had become silent, that they were all staring at me. I think my mouth was open in horror, and I don't think I was making much sense.

I can recall now how frustratingly hard it was to find out what exactly was happening; I took my class to the library for their scheduled book-changing/research period and told them to search, to see if they could find anything online about this unfolding horror. Meanwhile, I told the technician whose lair was close to my room to put on his television - one of the few in the school connected to an outside aerial. The pupils were finding out plenty about the WTC, but so far there was no real news - and they were as frustrated as I was.

By the time I reached the last period of the afternoon - a non-contact one for me - the technician's room was full of off-duty staff, all glued to the screen, all silent except for the odd gasp or oath. We saw the first tower fall, and then the second - in the wrong order, it seemed. Fear began to grow - would there be a war? A big one, involving everyone? Anything seemed possible.

I'm of an age to remember what I was doing when I heard Kennedy had been shot; this year is the first I have realised that that strangely live participation across half a world, a newsroom screen and a mobile phone is becoming similarly vivid. And these 13 year old kids who were in my room at the time it happened felt that they too had a tiny share in "being there" - it was one of the things several recalled when we've met since.

I would like not to be part of any more horror, no matter how distantly. Please?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sanity vs the bams

Glad to see our wee church stepping up to the mark with this statement about the absurd threats by that American pastor who wanted to burn copies of the Koran. The Primus said:
The burning of holy books is one of the most extreme manifestations of religious intolerance. It dishonours and devalues the faith of those who hold these texts as sacred. I unreservedly condemn the actions of those who plan to attack the Islamic community by desecrating their scriptures. Those who threaten to do this should be aware that, in today’s world, this will be seen also as a cultural and political provocation and may put at risk the lives of innocent people.
It would be good if the popular media would publicise this calm voice of sanity as widely as the threats of what in these parts the kids would call a bam. Wouldn't it?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Followers on Twitter will know that I've just spent a foul morning (weather, state of mind and activity all qualify) doing my online Tax Return. And followers of my life to date will realise that the last time I'd to fill in a tax return is lost in the mists of history - probably before I returned to work after giving birth to two sons to whom tax returns are probably as familiar as writing poetry is to me. But poetry they are not.

As an accountant friend pointed out on Facebook, my travails are why people employ accountants. It's just that I can't bring myself to think that my simple one-off job last year merited such an extravagance - nor to believe that I can be as stupid as I currently feel. Why, after all, would someone ever employ a thicko who couldn't fill in a tax return?

And of course, it's not really that at all. It's lack of familiarity with the jargon. The professional me knows that jargon's often at the heart of most incomprehension. When I returned to teaching in the early '80s, they'd introduced Standard Grade. I became instantly depressed at my first DM by talk about GRC and folios, about summative and formative assessment. Apparently I'd been accustomed to normative assessment and never known it. Obviously I had much to learn.

It's the same with money matters. Once you get the handle on what the tax people call things, it becomes slightly more accessible; you then have to realise what their forms won't tolerate (use the 'return' key at your peril and forget your antiquated notation that puts commas to indicate thousands). But don't ever think that help is only a phonecall away. Once you've littered your screen with help notes and pdf files, you can try phoning, and eventually, after several terse 'thanks for waiting's and reruns of a dire jingle, you will get a person to speak kindly to you and return re-invigorated to your screen only to find that the session has closed down because you spent too long away from it. And then, of course, you get the crash of the site when you're 75% finished and when you get back in you have to retrace your steps through several screens in a panic lest you have to do any more sums - or even look up more bits of paper.

Ok, I admit it. I'm not interested in money and keeping track of bits of paper. My files are stuffed to overflowing with statements I never look at. I am interested in poetry and literature and language and the problems of religious faith - and these don't seem to equip me for life in the financial world at all. But when I pop my clogs - it's all there, kids: you'll just have to look for it.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Climbing, catastrophe, and a poem

I've been writing about the climb I did on Thursday - a poem seemed an appropriate vehicle for what I'd been thinking about on the top, and you can read it here. But the extraordinary thing for me on the summit ridge of Ben Donich was that I was alone. Ok, it was only for 30 minutes or so, but in 58 years of climbing in Scotland I've never been alone and it was an exciting experience. A forgotten crag not far below the summit had meant that Mr B declined to accompany me - it's a rock scramble that you have to descend before the last easy climb - and as I knew I'd done it before, I decided to go for it.

That solitary moment or so as I took photos and looked at the blue hills around me gave me time to reflect on the time when I won't be able to do this any more. I'm happy to say, however, that the catastrophe of a sprained ankle waited until I was down the hill - I fell off the back garden path when we arrived home. Should'a kept the boots on ...