Thursday, October 28, 2010

Undemocratic silence?

Thought for today (actually it was Mr B's thought, but I've pinched it): why is it that in the Church of Scotland, that apparently most democratic of institutions, the congregation take so little active part in a service? I was at a funeral today, and it struck me forcibly that even when the minister did a proper lead-up to the final "amen" at the end of a prayer, we were the only people there who said anything. Strange, really.

And I have to say that on occasions such as this, an awareness of ritual and what is a suitable place to stand rather than sit and twitch is very helpful. I got the feeling that half the folk present would have remained sitting as the coffin was carried out, had not a chief mourner forcibly gestured that they should stand.

I think I'm glad I defected all these years ago.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Haunting darkness in India

Taking a break from the temptation of two more unread Kate Atkinson novels, I've just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It wouldn't have been my first choice; I'm not convinced by the fact that a book has won the Man Booker prize (as this did, in 2008) and I didn't feel in the mood for another culture (idle of me, I know). But a trusted friend had lent it to me, so I persevered through the oddness of the opening chapter and found myself hooked.

Aravind Adiga's first novel, this gives an insight into the world that was hinted at during the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in India - a world where the 21st century sits uneasily close to the India we don't really understand. The hero, Balram Halwai, begins school with the name Munna - which means boy. His father never got round to calling him anything else; his mother is dead and just as he realises that he is bright enough to go to college his family take him out of school in the village and send him to work in a tea-shop. From that village, he finds a job as a driver, and this job takes him to Delhi, where the new India rubs shoulders with the old, where the people from The Darkness of poor, backward India are shunned by the people from the Light, the Microsoft workers and call-centre operatives.

Through this experience, we see how Balram becomes the person he describes from the very beginning of the novel, the 'White Tiger', A Thinking Man and an entrepreneur. He is also, if we are to believe his grandiloquent first chapter, a wanted man - and as the story unfolds, in a series of memos to the Chinese premier who is visiting India, we find out why.

However interesting that progress from clever schoolboy to wanted man might be, it is India that is the star of this novel. This is an India that I find compellingly strained by the tensions of growth and development, wealth and poverty, power and the abuse of power, an India of cruelty, resilience and attention to self. Characters loom out of the pages - the driver nicknamed Vitiligo-Lips, the wealthy young man who has lived in the USA but is sucked back into the corruption and behaviour of his family, the family boss who demands that Balram massage his feet, the prostitute with the dyed blonde hair. And among them moves Balram, moves towards the action that will have his face on 'Wanted' posters all over India while he continues to pursue success in Bangalore.

I may have finished reading the book, but it's haunting me still - and I'm glad I don't have to look for cockroaches and geckos on my bedroom wall as Balram did. I'm not sure, however, that in leaving the Darkness of rural poverty and innocence the Balrams of modern India don't find themselves in a Darkness even more awful than the one they have left.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Not so remote after all ...

It is rarely that I go overboard about a pair of sandals, and even more rare to find me enthusing about the delivery of same, as I am more likely to be found girning about the discrimination practised by mail-order companies against people who live in Cowal. I've moaned online about this before, when I was to be charged £20 postage to have a pair of cufflinks delivered to Dunoon because it was in a "remote area" - an hour from Glasgow, mind.

But I digress. The nice pink sandals in the photo were my faithful companions on the recent trip to Barcelona, and though I'd had them for less that a week before I travelled, they were the last word in comfort on hot city streets and cool holy mountains in the rain. They were recommended by a pal with the same size of feet as I have, so I knew what size to order - they worked from the word go. (Keen, size 6 - see them here)

The most wondrous bit of this story, however, is the firm that delivered them, webtogs. Having ordered the sandals at 10.45pm on a Tuesday, I thought I'd be lucky to see them the following Monday - and I was off on holiday the next day. After all, I thought, it's Dunoon. We're remote. I was so wrong: the sandals came at lunchtime on the Thursday, less than 48 hours after I'd clicked on "buy". All beautifully parcelled, delivery free, with a 60 day free returns option. It wasn't a fluke either - I've just taken delivery of a pair of walking boots, two days after ordering them. I've also booked the walking holiday to go with them, but that's another story - meanwhile, I shall give them rigorous testing on the stairs to make sure they're just what I want.

A good story, on a wet day.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cut and paste at your peril ...

I was interested to read Mr W's post today about plagiarism in the 21st century. Make no mistake - the vast repository of information that is out there waiting to be accessed at the flick of a Google is a great temptation to anyone when it comes to cutting and pasting that little bit of someone else's work to enhance your own - and it's so easy!

Of course, it's been around a while, plagiarism - the internet just makes it easier. Neil points out:
Almost the entire essay had been copied and pasted from the net… and no one had noticed until I looked at it. ...
..and you can tell by the look of that how I've copied and pasted it straight from his blog, and even that I've had to fiddle around with fonts to get the rest of what I'm writing to look normal. But had I been writing, say, an academic essay, I'd have worked on ensuring that it was seamless - wouldn't I? And that's how it's always been done. When I was teaching Higher English, when the use of the internet as a resource was in its infancy and online cribs were few and far between, people took whole passages out of books, from Brodie's Notes to the introduction to school editions of Shakespeare to something their big sister/mother who did English/pal in S6 who did well at Higher last year gave them, and inserted this into their own work.

And of course it usually stuck out like a sore thumb. The language would change, the sophistication of expression would be streets ahead of the rest of the writing, there would be words or ideas never once mentioned in discussion of the text in question. I once challenged a pupil over her RPR final draft, pointing out that it bore little relation to what she'd shown me in previous drafts. Parents complained, the PT English was involved - and at last the girl confessed and rewrote her essay. It was all very unpleasant.

Neil puts forward several excellent points to consider in combatting this problem, but in the end the human difficulty will remain. As I've said in a comment, there are people who even in adult life have got away with internet cut-and-paste simply because their supervisor of studies has lacked the necessary grit to confront the culprit. It will be better far if everyone knows that plagiarism will be recognised and dealt with before they try it.

And now I need to try to fix the formatting of this post, which has gone seriously awry since my cutting and pasting!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guilty pleasures

Just spent a guilty hour (reading fiction in the afternoon - heavens) finishing one of my birthday books. What's a girl to do, when her sister gives her three novels and a box of sinfully melting chocs? Reader, I did it. Blame the post -injection lassitude if you like. I still feel guilty.

Trouble is, Kate Atkinson is so gripping. She has a wonderful way with atmosphere, with weaving stories in such a way that though you suspect there will be connections you can't for the life of you see where they lie ... I'm hooked. I'm getting to know Jackson, the retired cop, retired soldier, dispirited investigator with the sad history that's revealed only piecemeal - and I'm beginning to ache with his toothache, sympathise with his undramatic acceptance of the misfortunes that keep careering through his life.

I've always loved a good detective novel, ever since I found Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes in my parents' bookshelves, going on through Dorothy Sayers to P.D. James. My tastes tend to the literary, so Agatha Christie was never a starter, not even when I was fifteen. Now I've discovered a new seam to mine, and I'll have to resist starting another one right away. Case Histories is a complex, moving tragi-comedy, so if you've got a holiday coming up, or a duvet day, or simply a nice box of chocs waiting for your attention, go for it.

Enjoy the guilt!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An open letter to a Bishop-Elect

Dear Bishop-Elect Kevin

First of all, congratulations on your election as Bishop of Argyll and The Isles. (Perhaps this is a good moment to point out the capital "T" in "The" - you will never be allowed to forget it). I was away when the white smoke billowed from Cumbrae, staying, as it happened, with a member of your current flock; her reaction to the news was monosyllabic and entirely negative, which speaks volumes for the esteem in which she holds you. This is good, as far as I'm concerned. Of course, I'm already familiar with the wonderful services you conduct in St Michael's, to say nothing of the splendour of your weddings: the McIntosh family wedding was magnificent and was the talk of the steamie at the time. In fact, St Michael's has been my church on the many occasions when I've been in Edinburgh, and I feel it's going to be quite a change for you.

So - what might be of interest to a new bishop? Maybe you haven't realised yet that Argyll & The Isles is actually rather like Gaul - there are three parts to it. The area south of Inveraray, say, tends to look east, towards the Central Belt - after all, it's an hour to the centre of Glasgow for Dunoon folk, but a white-knuckle hour and three quarters to Oban. The Cathedral of The Isles is an important centre for Piskies down here, and we think it is exquisite. There are times when Oban feels very distant, especially in the winter; the folk from the islands, I assume, feel much the same.

There are pockets of Cursillistas in Argyll, but they tend not to meet with any regularity - in fact, most of them are so busy keeping their own churches going that they see a great deal of a limited group anyway. We wonder, in our quiet way, how you feel about Lay Ministry - there's a lot of it about. We feel we've grown as a result.

A few of us are very aware of the benefits of online communication, though much of the diocese is not as well served by this as it should be, and Oban itself - I have just realised - does not seem to have 3G networking. Failing that, you should soon be striking up a close relationship with Caledonian MacBrayne and honing your single-track road driving skills. Given that the road goes ever on when it comes to the diocese, we don't expect we shall see very much of you once you are ensconced in Oban - unless we can produce some confirmations for you. We try, we try.

I haven't mentioned the ethnic or cultural backgrounds of your impending flock (I like that image) - you will soon be in a much better position to judge. Just bear in mind that considerable variety exists. And despite local prejudice (we are still "The English Church") there are a good number of ethnic Scots in your flock-to-be.

You have taken on a challenging task, agreeing to become our Bishop. Please don't change. I hope you find yourself enjoying it all, and I look forward to welcoming you.