Sunday, January 30, 2011

A fascinating letter

The letter I've just been posting on Letters from the Past  is full of interest. My father must have been underemployed on duty that night, or simply more than usually fascinated by the current news. I've managed to find the speech of Churchill's that he comments on - I'm so impressed by what you can find online these days - and have linked to it; and the opinions he shares on Churchill, and on left-wing journalists, were quite at odds with what he calls my mother's "liberal sympathies" - though I never remember my father expressing political views in my hearing when I was of an age to take any notice of them.

There are also some insights into rationing and food - I realise with increasing clarity just how big a part food played in alleviating the tedium of service at home. It is worth noting, however, in the light of his penultimate paragraph, that he never, ever, became "really fat"!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hats from the past

It's amazing how one - or at least I - can become obsessed with a subject. I've always known this - at least from the period of Ancient Rome, closely preceded by Alpine climbs and climbers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both of which dominated my early secondary school career. Right now, of course, it's Letters from the past, the Desert War (no letters - all destroyed) and the last months of WW2 as seen through the letters of my father.

This morning it felt as if my obsession was spreading. For reasons I shall not go into*, I found myself in church, at the start of the service, standing with the small children who have so miraculously appeared in our congregation. They, and I, were wearing strange hats, kindly handed out by Andrew. As if by magic (no, I know it isn't - he reads blogs) he gave me a hat just like the one in the photo on the left, which shows my father sitting in the door of his bivvy somewhere in the Western Desert, probably in 1942. It felt absolutely right to jam the RAF forage cap on the side of my head, not just because I'd been uploading this photo the other day but also because when I was a small child I used to play for hours wearing father's forage cap. (There was also a proper, hard, peaked cap, but I didn't like it as my head was too small and it tended to birl round on the top of my pigtails as if it had a life of its own).

Maybe it's a sign of age that the past suddenly becomes precious - but I wonder what that formidable intellect with whose words I am working would make of all this.

*Oh, all right then. Andrew was introducing the theme of "calling" by getting people to assign roles to hats. If you get me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Walking in the air

Walking in the air
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The photo accompanying this post shows how magical this afternoon was. After a morning swathed in dank fog, we set out from the still-foggy coast to climb through the forest above Blairmore - and came out into the last of the light as the sun set. The whole of the Firth of Clyde, as far as we could see in all directions, was swathed in fog, with the Inverkip Power Station chimney half its usual size and the hills above Gourock cut down to mere bumps. It felt like being in an aircraft - or, as Rob pointed out, like The Day After Tomorrow.
You can see the rest of my (phone) photos of the view by clicking on the one here.

Friday, January 21, 2011


My current preoccupation with Letters from the Past means I have less time - and fewer thoughts - to post on this blog, but after a flurry of suggestions from Ewan about how I could enrich its content I found myself examining my attitude to what I'm doing there.

For widening my remit, so to speak, sent me hunting for such things as photos, references to the RAF base from which the letters were written, links to other sites. I became aware of the huge numbers of photos and memories now preserved online, and I was seized by the need to tie my contribution to a larger picture. But in a sense, the letters I'm reproducing have something more relevant to my own field of interest, something that makes them stand alone. The writing in them is wonderfully clear, succinct and evocative of my father's voice - the last of which is, of course, of more personal interest. Today's entry , for example, describes the weather as being "stringently cold". I've never come across that particular use of "stringent", and it's perfect.

These were, of course, the letters of one highly-educated scholar of English to another. I can only imagine the pleasure his references gave when the letters arrived in war-grim Glasgow. And it is this kind of feature that brings me to realise that the real interest, for me, lies in the letters themselves.

There is a whole box of them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A blog from World War 2

For the past week I've been reading through a box of letters written by my father to my mother in 1945. Having spent a month or so in Glasgow on the first home leave in three years, he was posted to an RAF base in deepest Essex. From there he at first expected to be sent to Northern Europe - he was a cipher officer - but as the weeks went by he settled into a life of excruciating boredom, in which the hight points were the many letters he received from home and the weekly attempt at making a phone call to his wife.

During that period he must have written on average three letters per week, in tiny handwriting on miserable paper. Often delivery was held up, so that whole bundles of letters would arrive together - though this seems to have been more of a problem with letters from Essex. When it came to the Sunday evening phone call, he might have to book a slot 3 hours in advance, and then have to endure a bad line or an interrupted connection - a far cry from the instant communication we take for granted now. Nine months of these letters survive, with gaps; they end when he left for home to attend the birth of his first child: me.

The letters fall into three sections - the personal, obviously, much of which I have edited out; the literary, mainly dealing with the books he devoured as his main source of entertainment; and the political, as he comments on the progress of the war, the likelihood of demobilisation and the attitudes of his fellow-officers. Every now and again there is the casual mention of something huge, historically speaking, but they are fascinating primarily as an insight into our recent past.

You can find the letters, as well as photos from the desert war, on the blog Letters from the past.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Waste of parents?

I'm currently working on a fascinating project to put online a great collection of letters from my father written during 1945 and therefore covering the end of the war with Germany and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan - and I'll put up a link just as soon as I get started on the text. But in preparation for starting I've been reading these letters, and I've been learning.

Two things leap to mind. The first is of interest, probably, only to me: I was going to be called Caroline Mary. The initials are the same - but I can't so far find out when I became the me that I know instead. The other, however, is more profound. I was wondering why I knew so little about my own parents, so little about what they thought about the big things. I realised that in fact it was because I hadn't asked the right questions - especially of my father, who died when I was 32. Ok, you say - you were an adult. What stopped you asking the questions?

And the answer is, I think, that I didn't know what questions to ask. I also lacked the confidence to ask them. I don't think I became that confident questioner until ... well, until now, I suppose. I simply didn't know enough. They were my parents, and that was enough - a kind of force-field prevented my straying too far, and I didn't know the way anyway. So that feeling that keeps coming over me - the idea that we waste our parents, the resources that they represent - is something I have to recognise and, to quote Larkin, clothe as destiny. Maybe we are all destined to "waste" our parents; to dismiss their recollections as old hat or irrelevant, to assume that we know it all without recourse to their wisdom. Maybe the force-field is omnipresent between the generations, and maybe it is inevitable and even necessary.

So I forgive myself my thoughtlessness, and will attempt to make amends to myself now. And while I'm at it, I shall keep on growing up.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Voyage into 3D

I've come over all industrious in the last couple of days - started work on a new blog to make use of fascinating family archive material from World War 2 - but before I lose sight of it, I must record our recent outing to the movies. This is something we tend to do on average once a year - a post-Christmas treat involving the empty cinema (everyone else being back at work/school), a morning screening and a large and leisurely lunch afterwards. Because I believe that a big screen and superb sound effects merit a big movie and special features that wouldn't be the same on the telly, we didn't see the apparently excellent The King's Speech - we shall, but probably on DVD - but went to a 3D screening of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - the third in the Narnia films.

Of the books, this was perhaps one I didn't particularly enjoy, but boy, did it make a good movie! There we sat, in our shades (modern 3D involves not red and green lenses, but things that look like pale sunglasses), captivated by the effects as Eustace the dragon swept at us out of the screen and the green fog (see picture) threatened to engulf us all. The moral transformation of said Eustace - which might well have seemed nauseating - was wonderfully acted, and Aslan (Liam Neeson) as ever sent shivers up the spine. It was a great outing - and the threatened sick-making effect of the 3D wasn't in evidence, despite the problem of getting the specs to balance comfortably over the ones already on my nose.

Magic, in fact.

Moving swiftly on: parenting and education

Considering my own childhood - and I realise it must seem odd to many - led me inexorably to think about my own role as a parent trying to encourage children to learn, do homework and so on. I was about to say that by comparison with my own parents' involvement, I was a complete failure - but then I thought about the outcome for both sons and decided that was a tad sweeping. So what do I remember?

The Word Tin. Son no.1 used to produce this, when he was in P1, with a look of doom. We had to pick words out of a tobacco tin (where on earth did I lay my hands on this item?) and he had to recognise them. At the time he was four and a half and it was torture. Later, there was more amusement to be had in thinking up outrageous sentences with which he could demonstrate the meaning of words. And that, I have to admit, is all I can remember from the Primary school years. I have very little recollection of what - if anything - I did to help no. 2 son. He used a thing called the word-maker, and progressed to a sentence-maker, but I didn't seem to do anything. Could this be because by then I'd gone back to work?

When your children attend the secondary school in which both parents teach, the experience is somewhat different from the norm. I was certainly involved in helping both sons with English - rescuing one from having to do North and South for Higher by spending a whole Easter holiday studying the Larkin set texts so that he could use them in the exam a month later actually involved me in the most God-awful scene with his class teacher, who happened to be my boss. I did a bit of Standard-grade Latin with both of them. And when no.1 son became editor of the school magazine, he recruited me as the Editor-in-chief because it was more convenient for him - and look where that got us.

Actually it got me into what I see as the most important single piece of education I ever undertook. I don't know how many evenings I spent in the school while both sons in turn ran the magazine, teaching myself to do desktop publishing (Adobe Pagemaker) when they left and the boy who knew how to do it let us down, sharing hilarious pressure with successive generations of student journalists when the photocopier jammed/ran out of ink/got too hot, going off with them to competitions in Edinburgh and to the Scottish Parliament, sitting in on interviews with Frank Pignatelli, then Director of Education for Strathclyde, and John Smith, leader of the Labour party. Pupils who were shy learned to use the phone, to contact advertisers, to sell advertising; others learned touch-typing without ever taking Business Studies, coaxed ancient Macintosh Classics to work years after they should have recycled, learned to use the scanner and the value of white space on the page.

Did this make up for the fact that we had television on every night? That there was a small telly in the older son's bedroom, linked to the ZX Spectrum but also to an aerial? That they both had radios and listened to music incessantly, from an early age? That we allowed an 11 year old to have a modem and a year's subscription to BT's precursor of the internet (what on earth was it called?) so that he would come and beg: "Can I go online now?" before he was in secondary school? At the time I felt I was failing, when I'd find one of them sweating over something for the magazine the night before some important exam, but now I'm less sure.

But there's so much more to think about in this early exposure to the medium I'm using now that I think I'd better leave it to another post. It's a long way from the Word Tin ...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The parental role in education

The radio was on this morning, wittering away in the background, when I caught a few sentences and realised that Call Kay was inviting us to consider the role of parents in their children's education. I didn't listen for long, lest I be tempted to contribute (I have phoned this programme twice in the past - don't want to get a name for myself) but it started a train of memories. Hence the photo. It was taken - by me, as I'm not in it - in Paris. I was 14 at the time, my sister 11. I know this because I can recall my mother telling some French waiter that we were "onze et quatorze" - and so right in the age range that I can remember most vividly when it comes to thinking about school, homework and study.

The chat on the radio today was looking at the perceived failure of state schools adequately to prepare their students for the competition to enter the top universities, and asking how much parental pressure/support/coercion was needed to supplement the work of the school. As a teacher, a parent and - a long time ago - a child, I think I have quite a rounded picture of this - but in this post, I'd like to share the part my home played in ensuring that I succeeded in what I set out to do.

By the time I was ten, we lived in a Victorian terraced house in the West End of Glasgow, with four bedrooms and two public, as well as a large kitchen, a wash-house and a lined loft. Loads of room into which one could vanish - but in winter it was cold, and we tended to live between the dining-room and the kitchen. That meant piano practice was less assiduous than it might have been, but was generally done before the evening meal - perhaps on the premise that food would replace the heat lost during practice. Dinner was over by 6pm - both parents were teachers, both home at the same time as us. For the next three hours, my sister and I sat at the dining room table and did homework - and there was always a great deal of this. (We were at a grant-aided selective school, and we could be asked to leave if we didn't work). Until about 7pm, we weren't allowed to make a noise. In fact, I got hell once for throwing a pencil down on the table, as my father had fallen asleep in his chair and I woke him.  Once his post-prandial kip was over, however, we had two hours in which both our parents took a hand in our struggles.

Father was always deeply critical of the teaching in the English department of our school, so we had a great deal of incredibly thorough input on texts we were studying. That went without saying. What was more remarkable, I thought, was that he would also work out from first principles what was going on in the Physics problems I had such trouble with - sums involving moment, I recall with horrifying clarity. My mother, meanwhile, would sit down with my tiny, battered copy of Caesar's Gallic Wars or, later, Virgil's Aeneid (Book 2) and, as she put it, "break the back of it" before I set to work on my preparation for the next day's terrifying oral translation session round the class. She also pushed us to work at French, which I personally hated because of the accent involved, and made several visits at parents' evenings to ask why we had so little written homework in French (lazy teacher; fluent as married to French woman but no fire in his chubby belly). That holiday in Paris, by the way, was by way of encouraging me at the end of S2 - I can still remember the chagrin when the lift man in our hotel corrected my pronunciation of "quatrième".

All this must have taken an enormous amount of dedication and energy on the part of two people who had already taught for a whole day - or even the half day done by my mother, who would then have had to shop (no car, so limited to what she could carry each time) and deal with our sizeable and dusty-corner-ridden house. There was no thought that my sister and I should do housework, other than during a holiday. But perhaps the biggest single contributing factor was the absence of a television. Despite my sense of deprivation at never having seen Quatermass or Emergency: Ward 10 my father refused to have a set until I had graduated (I lived at home when I was at Uni). He said I'd become an addict and that would be the end.

How right he was. I'll return to this subject - I want to think about my own deficiencies when it came to fulfilling the parental role - but for now, I'll indulge my latest addiction. Another go at Bubbles HD before I head out?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Catharsis in Walford

Another week in the Square begins; Ronnie (right) is still holding the baby and the Moons are about to bury the dead infant that they believe is their own. And in the real world actress Samantha Womack is apparently giving up the role of Ronnie because the reactions of people to her in the street have been ruining her life, and media arguments continue about the veracity and poor taste of the story-line. Apparently the BBC, bowing to pressure, are to cut short the story of the changeling baby in the spring.

What nonsense all this is. The most unexpected people suddenly stop watching the programme, or write letters or post their ire on websites. People are upset to find this sort of thing in their living-rooms, and Mumsnet is raging. What's going on?

Classically, the purpose of drama - and particularly of tragedy - is catharsis: the purging of pity and terror. You watch the drama unfold, you become involved, you suspend disbelief, you weep, rage, gasp, feel fear and relief - and by the end, if it's been well done, you feel wrung out, devoid of all emotion. Judged by this set of criteria, EastEnders has got it about right, I'd say - except that people have forgotten the rules.

A few weeks ago I watched Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, in a strangely bleak production of Shakespeare's tragedy. For anyone who has forgotten the plot, Macbeth, a soldier, acts on the urgings of some strange women and murders his king. He then becomes king, but fears his best pal Banquo may suspect, so has him bumped off. He is more than somewhat annoyed that the inept thugs who do this for him fail to murder Banquo's wee boy. Later he has the wife and children of one of his former friends horribly murdered in their house as the children are getting ready for bed. That last bit is particularly horrid. I wasn't aware of cries of horror and demands that the play should never be put on again.

Or what about Hamlet, whom Shakespeare has plotting to murder his uncle for the whole length of a long play? In the course of trying to find the perfect moment, Hamlet bumps off the father of his girlfriend without knowing or caring who he is, sends his two best chums from school to certain death in a foreign country and acts in a totally unsuitable way towards his silly mother. Do people write angry letters about the portrayal of life with a step-father?

Course they don't. It's only a play, silly. So why do they think EastEnders is any different? Ronnie has been an unstable character for years - of course she's not going to get to be happy and fulfilled. Nor is she going to accept her lot if there's a chance of doing the dirty on someone else - we know this; we've been prepared for it. No-one would leave an hours-old baby in its cot in the care of its grandpa? Well yes, they would. People are wary of passing around a newborn - there's a sort of mystique, a fragility that binds a new baby to its mother, and if the mother is suddenly taken ill it's an alarming prospect for even the most gung-ho stranger to look after this tiny infant. And it was Hogmanay, and they were all drinking and Alfie is good-hearted but inept and Charlie has never been the most savvy of men.

If I were an EastEnders producer, I'd be thinking I'd succeeded here. Everyone's talking about it, it's on the news programmes and radio chat shows and in the serious Sundays as well as the red-tops. What more could they ask? So people seem to think it has to fulfil a public service role and show bereaved Ronnie behaving well and bravely - where's the mileage in that? This way, the story has legs. Jessie Wallace gets to act her socks off. It's not real life, whatever people have come to assume. It's a play. Fiction. Drama. Either watch it, or hit the remote.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

On lecterns, and cold hands

Eagle lectern
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Brass eagles don't usually leap into the mind when the weather is cold - monkeys are much more likely. However, today I want to consider a brass eagle like this one, a lectern in a chilly church on an icy Sunday. Specifically, and not to detract from this magnificent specimen in the Cathedral of The Isles, I want to consider the lectern in Holy Trinity, Dunoon, and its effect on me this icy morning.

Today was my turn to preach. Having read the gospel (it was a lay-led service), I propped my notes on the lectionary as usual - and found that they wouldn't stay put unless I held on a bit. (The lectionary at this early point in the year lies a bit lop-sided when open at the right page). I tend to hang on to the wing-tips anyway, as it anchors the hands in a decorous sort of fashion.

Halfway through I had a vision. It was not an angelic vision, nor was it helpful. I pictured myself as in a heat-imager: starting off quite red and glowing, in my good wool coat to the ankles and the fur-lined boots. Within moments, my hands are blue, then black. The glowing red is drained out of my shape, passing instead to the eagle. By the end of the sermon, my frozen body retreats and the eagle, glowing like the Phoenix, takes off and soars down the church.

There you are. I told you it wasn't helpful. But I must try to do something different with my hands next time.

Or wear gloves ...

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hibernation ended

Journey over, eh? The Magi - and I love this picture of them, with their anachronistic clothing and their impatient gait as they press forward with their gifts - have arrived at the place where the infant lay, and have presumably gone again, returning "by another route" to their palaces on slopes, as Eliot puts it, changed men who had to face how they would live after such an experience. And we, their descendant Gentiles, will in a couple of days find ourselves at the Baptism of Jesus, a baby no longer but a mature man facing the call of God to do something extraordinary.

I've been thinking about this as I prepare a sermon for Sunday, and the idea of living through change in oneself has taken over. I can remember how overawed I became shortly after finding I was expecting my first child - I was standing at a bus-stop in Clarence Drive when I was suddenly overcome with the enormity of the changes this as yet invisible child would produce in my life. (If I'd known it would involve leaving the West End of Glasgow and living in Dunoon I might have panicked even more, but there you are). But now, all these years on, I look back calmly and with huge satisfaction at the way it all panned out: what was I afraid of?

Only thing is, I don't think satisfaction is what it's about. Not this change, not this Epiphany. I have a worrying feeling that it may be about continual growth, continuing challenge, continual willingness to try, to accept, to move on. Tonight I noticed it was significantly lighter at 4pm than it has been. Hibernation is not an option, is it?

Oh, darn ...

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Kate Atkinson, again

Just before the Christmas holiday (and yes, retired people can have them, when they give up cooking and visit their families and abdicate responsibility for their own lives) I finished reading Kate Atkinson's latest novel, Started Early, Took my Dog. I sat up late reading so that I'd finish it before Christmas took over, and I'm glad that I did - though I think I shall want to read it again.

This is the fourth book to feature Jackson Brodie, who sidles into the plot some time after I became hooked on the story of Tracy, ex-cop, security firm owner, lonely and overweight. It was Tracy and her acquisition of a child that had me reluctant to move around the plot - for Atkinson never leaves you with only one strand to follow - and Brodie and the dog that enters his life who had me laughing aloud, sometimes in horror. The story is dark in places, and complex in its interweaving of time-scales and histories, which is where the second reading will come in - I don't feel I'll fully appreciate the book until I do this. I loved the details of the past - Vesta curries, Smash instant mash - and the fact that they shared a place with the use of Twitter and Facebook. Too often, I feel, novelists opt for a present that seems never to have changed - kind of Orwellian, in a way - and forget that readers might share a past with the characters.

I don't think I've really explained why I'd recommend this, other than that it's the usual well-written, gripping story with a twist in its tail. You can see my first thoughts on it here, but apart from that just go and read it for yourself.