Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lilies of the field?

I'm a great one for a bit of symbolism, and tend to become inordinately excited when I'm surprised by something beautiful. I knew that last year I'd dumped the crocus bulbs under the hedge, to make room for something else in their pot, and I knew that I'd seen some insipid yellow flowers through the kitchen window, but I had no idea that today's sun would bring out the delicate mixture of colours in the picture. There there were, in all their fragile beauty, producing a huge swelling of delight as I came home from church in the early afternoon.

And the symbolism? Well we'd just had our new bishop, Kevin, celebrating the Eucharist in our church, three weeks after his consecration. The congregation was about double the size it had been a couple  of years ago; the children were so ... uninhibited ... that I'd had to bellow the intercessions, and we'd had a jolly lunch party afterwards. And yet we all know how fragile our economy is, how easily the building could become too much to keep going, how people can die or drop away. There seems no sensible reason why we're there, why we keep going, why people put so much into making sure the beauty of the liturgy is there, week in week out.

But today it all came together. The sun shone, Cowal looked beautiful, the crocuses were in full bloom, and we had our new bishop in his church on the hill. And I thought of the lilies of the field, and how little I'd cared for these flowers that were so pleasing me today. And like all the best symbolism, there lay behind the coming together a greater truth, one that shatters or slips away in the moment when I try to express it, so I won't try any more. Let the picture be enough.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Out of the dark ...

It's amazing how a sudden change in the weather can make such a difference to life. Perhaps I should qualify that. When I lived in the city - and it's 37 years since I did - the weather was a backdrop, no more. I noticed if it wasn't raining, and can recall the peculiar smell of sun-warmed dust mingled with privet flowers in the late summer, but I have no recollection of prolonged gloom or subsequent depression on my part. Even in Dunoon, when I was at work, the main drawback of awful weather was the trail from the carpark to the main entrance - you could be soaked before you knew it - but I often felt how cheerful the yellow-painted English corridor was on a dark morning, and enjoyed the obvious delight my classes took in my similarly-painted classroom. It didn't really cross my mind to care about the weather - I was too busy, and didn't get out much except at weekends.

Now, however, it's different. This is the first winter I haven't gone abroad at all, and it's had an effect. The past week has been distinguished by a complete absence of sun - the rain hasn't fallen every day, but it's been dark. Some days it felt as if we were stuck on the edge of a huge ocean, as we could see nothing of the other side of the firth. Everyone you met mentioned it. It was hellish.

And then came today. The morning was like all the others - grey, misty, a hint of drizzle in a slight breeze. Until suddenly the wind got up and the clouds rolled back. The photo above was taken about 5pm, and shows the high tide completely covering the beach below the shore road at Toward. We walked along here, and out the Ardyne, and I felt like a new person. A squadron of oystercatchers flew overhead on some important mission; their cousins shared a field with the sheep and a scattering of  curlews. The waves were brown and green in the low sunlight, and it was almost unbearably bright, as if we'd been in a cave for a week. The light reminded us, oddly, of the shore south of Monterey in California at the same time of year, though there were no tales of mountain lions to terrify.

And then the sun set and it was dark again. But the effect remained - and with it the thought that, as Larkin said, "It will be spring soon, it will be spring soon."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Notes on a letter from the past.

I've just been posting another of my father's wartime letters on Letters from the Past. In this one, he is rejoicing at the confirmation that my mother was expecting their first child: me. Obviously, it is fascinating for me, and much of this letter is taken up with the news rather than the progress of the war and service life. But I am especially struck by the fact that at this time I seem to have been going under the name Caroline Mary - a sort of working title with the same initials as the name I ended up with - Christine Margaret.

I shall be fascinated to discover if the change to the name occurs before the birth - and how, for heaven's sake, did they know that it was a girl? Dr Kate Harrower was well known as an outstanding practitioner, but this knowledge was surely well beyond her powers. And how old-fashioned and wonderful the insistence on my mother stopping work - the fiercely feminist Dr H was obviously having none of this!

On a sadder note, the Willie Skinner referred to in this letter was, I think, a close friend of my mother's younger brother. She used to become emotional at the mention of his death even when I was an adult - a real underlining of the agelessness of the young who die in war. As my father rarely mentioned the serious business of war, but chose in my youth to dwell on the humorous moments - as when he emerged naked from the Mediterranean to find Churchill and Monty standing on the beach - I had to remind myself frequently that war meant death and misery. This was one of the few deaths to touch our family personally.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bubbling away

Time for confession. I've become addicted to a game. And it's on my iPad - so I don't even have to visit the study to play it. Bubbles is described as a hybrid puzzle-shooter game combining elements of puzzle, shooter, strategy and action games. I'm glad it apparently involves all these apparently thoughtful things that might keep my aged brain functioning, for it's up there on a par with Tetris in my addiction stakes.

Apart from the danger of repetitive strain injury (I play with the middle finger of my right hand, if you're interested) there's the problem of seeing life as a series of bubbles to be burst. I realised I had it bad when I looked up from losing a game (I don't actually know how you win it) and visualised the black jacket of someone talking on the television suddenly disintegrating as a black bubble hit it.

I've recently found Tetris on Facebook, which may go some way to weaning me off Bubbles, but the lure is strong. Anyone got something else I can waste my time with?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Recycling gay marriage

Sometimes I can't help myself. It happened this morning. At least I didn't reach for the phone - but I did send a mail. What was it that so disrupted my peaceful breakfast? A phone-in on the radio. Call Kaye -without the eponymous Kaye - was looking at the proposed English legislation that will allow gay couples to be married in a religious ceremony. Apparently the Scottish government won't be following. The punters were asked to air their opinions. And afterwards, they could have their say about recycling.

Usually I turn off at this point. I find phone-ins an irritant I can do without. But this morning I let it get under my skin, and that was that. I don't intend to rehearse the whole sorry tale - none of it was new. But two things stuck out and drove me to action. The first was typified by the woman who took the "it's a sin and we don't believe in it" attitude; the second by the man who said, politely and less concisely than I am about to, that Christians are nutters and should be allowed to do what they liked because no-one outside cared.

Trouble is, the dogmatic attitude of the woman made the man's attitude perfectly understandable. It was when the presenter said that there hadn't been much coming in from Christians by way of support for the idea that I could bear it no longer. I didn't say much - just that this Christian felt ashamed of belonging to a church that felt bound to ideas formulated when it was assumed that people suffering from epilepsy were possessed by demons. It's annoying, though - I wanted to say so much more, but went for the soundbite. The good news is that as far as that bit of the programme was concerned, I had the last word.

Now ... recycling, anyone?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Class wars in Doyle

AS I start this post, I notice that the photo accompanying the one about +Kevin's consecration has vanished. I hope it's a temporary affliction - Flickr has been a tad flaky these last couple of days. Today, however, I am considering a much more resilient medium - my mother's ancient copy of Conan Doyle's The White Company. If you're not familiar with this mediaeval story, take a look at the chapter headings and you'll get a flavour of the tone of this, the original story about Sir Nigel Loring to which Sir Nigel was a prequel. (Did they talk of prequels in the late eighteenth century? I think not)

The left-hand page bears this dedication: To the hope of the future, the reunion of the English-speaking races, this little chronicle of our common ancestry is inscribed.
South Norwood, September 29, 1891.

This last information, incidentally, is particularly interesting to me now because of the fact that members of the greater Blethers clan now live in South Norwood; I try to picture Conan Doyle among the older houses there, perhaps using the same railway station that we frequent on our visits.
I'm not going to tell the story. You can buy it on Amazon if you're interested. And I've already gone on about how I read this stuff before I was ten, no doubt becoming in the process the finicky dinosaur I now seem to be. But what struck me most powerfully in this latest reading of it was the dreadful injustice of the class system of the time - the lordship of the Norman rulers, the haughty king who didn't deign to speak English, the automatic assumption that the squire of gentle birth would ultimately earn his spurs and his knighthood while the brave archer who saved everyone's bacon time and time again would marry the innkeeper woman who had looked after his feather bed and stagger about in his old age (about 50) and chase the pretty girls while the aged Lord Chandos would ride to battle in his late 60s and die gloriously.

Even worse was my realisation that in my childhood I accepted this hook, line and habergeon (go on - look it up). When the Jacks, the poverty-stricken country French, storm the castle of Villefranche in an episode that I used to be too scared to read in bed at night, they are described as bestial and sub-human, and their assault on our noble heroes seems shocking and an affront to the natural order of things. But did I notice, all these years ago, how Doyle sets the framework for the episode? The wife of the Seneschal of Villefranche describes how ugly the people are, how she "cannot bear it" and so "my trusty Raoul goes ever before me with a cudgel to drive them from my path" - to which her chaplain murmurs "Yet they have souls, fair lady, they have souls!" He is quickly slapped down, because the Seneschal has heard "that you have said to them that their souls are as good as ours". It were better, he goes on, if the priest were to stick to saying Mass.

I fear that as a nine-year-old I probably skipped through this bit to get to the awful moment when the body of the squire is dangled outside his friend's window in the dark. But I'm really glad I've re-read it, seen more of what was implied, realised that it's not just a tale of derring-do. I probably won't read it again.

Life, as they say, is too short.

Friday, February 04, 2011

'Tis done ... we have a Bishop!

Don't they look jolly? The chaps in the gold hats are the current bishops of the SEC; the others are either retired or from overseas - but the one in the centre, the one with the biggest smile, is Bishop Kevin, the new bishop of Argyll and The Isles. I managed to get this, among a clutch of snatched-and-blurred pics, by leaping in an unladylike fashion onto a pew in the cathedral as they finished the photo-call; you can just see the official photographer in the bottom left.

But enough of the technical stuff. On a day when the wind threatened to lift the roof and the rain battered down on the alarmingly glass roof of the choir, an unfeasibly large number packed the cathedral to see Bishop Kevin consecrated and Bishop Mark give up the burden of looking after us - it's been a long haul, and he's been brilliant. There was a considerable invasion of Edinburgh folk, obviously loathe to let +Kevin go, and a selection of luminaries from other parts of the province, all interested by the Argyll weather and the possibility that gaiters might be worn (they weren't). Kilts there were, however, and some tartan trews, and tweed - not to mention the odd fleecy jumper.

The Right Reverend David Conner, Dean of Windsor, preached a sermon that drew heavily on Philip Larkin's poem Church Going. Written 60 years ago, it gives a picture of the poet - and Larkin himself took part in a TV film that showed him, bicycle and all - visiting a church, going in only when he is "sure there's nothing going on". Larkin, said the Dean, was like the Greeks in the Gospel of the day who wanted "to see Jesus". Although Larkin said he was "bored, uninformed", he nevertheless often found himself "tending to this cross of ground" because of what it held, what it had held over the ages, and this was a commonly-found attitude of the majority of people nowadays, who still have this hunger without really knowing what it is they seek. Bishop Kevin's role was to be a leader in mission, relentless in his prayerful quest to show the love of Christ in the world so that those who seek find not barriers and impenetrable theology but rather the answer to the need they might not fully understand, the "hunger ... to be more serious".

"Reach out, my friend," he said in conclusion, "reach out, but dig deep."

The digging will soon begin, but for this weekend, it seemed, the celebrations were paramount. And after a service lasting over two hours, the hungry horde scuttled along the road like so many Mary Poppinses under their billowing brollies and descended on the purvey in the Argyll Gathering halls. When we left, five hours after arriving, the rain was still falling steadily. We surfed home through the gathering gloom, crashing through the potholes that seemed to have multiplied since the morning. At least we didn't crash the car. Summer consecrations must be more dangerous - we drove into a ditch after the last one.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Wild things

This wild and wooly day happened to coincide with a fairly long-standing arrangement to visit Edinburgh, so having chipped the ice from the windscreen this morning we set off in the sunshine across the calm Firth of Clyde to do just that. The journey took us just over two hours, door to door, and we arrived in time for coffee. Yeah, yeah - we'd heard the weather forecast; we knew it wouldn't last ...

We leave Newhaven as the wind begins to drive rain in our faces. We've enjoyed a lovely lunch, hugged our grandchildren, heard the new drum kit. It's 3.30pm and we reckon we'd better head for home. We are not even past the city boundary when we learn that Western Ferries have gone off - Cal Mac don't seem to have been running since mid-morning. The traffic is already nose to tail as we edge out onto the M8 and towards Glasgow.

In the four mile traffic jam before the Kingston Bridge we decide we're driving home over the Rest and Be Thankful, via the Erskine Bridge because we've ended up in the wrong lane to go along Great Western Road. By now, the motorway is flooded in the low-lying bits, and great gouts of water fly up from under wheels and crash onto our roof. Every so often a gust hits us with the force of a giant fist. We have heard the same news bulletins till we could repeat them verbatim, but we keep Radio Scotland on for the traffic updates as we whizz over the Erskine Bridge in a lull and on towards Loch Lomond. And it is as we embark on the lochside road that I realise we are listening to Get it On. Now, I have only just clocked this programme, thanks to Ewan, and it strikes me it might while away the drive if we make a request. I entrust this task to my pal Di, in the back seat with her iPhone. Ask for "I remember you", I instruct - they're looking for songs that should never be covered, and it's sure to come into that category.

And so it is, best beloved, that forty minutes later, after we have braved the dark battering of the Rest and the long run down Glen Croe, as we hurtle through Strachur, we hear a message for "Di and Chris, driving home" and find ourselves singing along with Frank Ifield at the top of our voices. What fun. The miles have sped by and we're as jolly as a school trip on speed. We don't even care that it's taken us four and a half hours to get home.

Pity Mr B (driving) has to spoil it all. He announces that he feels like the coach driver - on a Saga outing.

Ah well.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Enjoying an old 'tec

In keeping with my current preoccupation, I've dipped back into my childhood years again with this excellent Penguin Classic, The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham. I'm sorry about the blurred illustration - it's the one I found on Amazon which is identical to my own copy, and I was delighted to be able to slip it into my reticule for a flight to London last week. I've remarked before on how wonderfully practical these older Penguins are, with their small bulk and small print - have we all become averse to reading something that looks densely-packed on the page?

I first read my parents' hardback copy of this book in my early teens, and although I haven't read it since, the sense of menace lingered over the years. It's a wonderfully-written 'tec novel; the language is sophisticated and delightful and never misses a beat. I knew I would love it afresh on the first page - "The fog had crept into the taxi where it stood panting in a traffic jam" - and this Eliot-like fog is the "smoke" of the title. As a novel, it obeys the classic unities of place and time for over three quarters of its length, taking place over two days in a restricted area of London in a dense post-war fog.

The tension throughout is maintained by that fog, and by the sense that the forces of evil are somehow connected to even the most innocent-seeming protagonist in the story. And although I began to remember just as the denouement came into sight, the need to pursue the plot to its conclusion was as powerful as I can recall experiencing. This is one of Allingham's later stories involving Albert Campion, and all the better for it - though I may find myself scouring Amazon for one of the earlier ones.

If you haven't tried any of these stories, this is a good place to start. I envy you.