Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grauniad alive and well and better online

I had the interesting experience yesterday - yes, I know there was a wedding going on, but there was life beyond that - of experiencing for myself the difficulties of writing for someone else. On Thursday, I saw a tweet from @commentisfree asking for someone to write, in a hurry, about the experience of being a grandparent. It was already 11am, and the deadline was 1pm. Great, I thought, I like a challenge - and I qualified on the grandparenting side. So after my coffee I set to, and duly dispatched the required 250 words. (I think I maybe wrote 252 words)

Back came a mail saying they'd use it. I'd seen the online tale about Gwyneth Paltrow badmouthing her grandma; I expected to see my stuff online. A phone call later in the afternoon, however, told me it'd be in the paper as well, so I duly bought one of Dunoon's limited stock of guardians the following morning.

To put it briefly, my piece was crap. It had been edited out of all recognition, into a jaggedly unimaginative lump devoid of paragraphs ( I know - space restrictions) with the sequencing altered and so drastically cut that it didn't actually make sense. They didn't even get my "comment is free" name right. Someone who knows me well said it didn't sound like me at all, and I was glad to hear this. I gave heartfelt thanks that usually I write only for myself, and that  our local paper treats what I write with respect. I know newspapers have to consider column inches and that once a paper's out that's it - it can't be changed - but I had never really considered the implications for print journalists.

Thing is, I'm not a print journalist. I'm not a journalist at all. Putting that castrated rubbish in the paper makes it look as if "amateurs" can't write to save themselves, and makes this "amateur" determined that she won't do anything so silly again. But if they're going to invite submissions, the Guardian needs to think about what they're doing.

To balance all this, I have to report that when the online version appeared - and you can read it here - it was more or less what I had written, and - better still - the mistakes I pointed out to @commentisfree Jessica were immediately remedied. Maybe this happens every time anyone writes for print media - and maybe that's why I'm becoming such a fan of online reporting.

But there's still something nice about seeing it in print ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Of plain chant, coal heavers and feathers...

I've referred recently to singing plainsong - though the singing of the example on this Wiki page wouldn't encourage anyone, I fear - which possibly gives me more sense of completeness that any other music, at least in the church setting of much of my own singing. The accompanying illustration comes from the modern setting of Compline, and shows the traditional notation in a clear modern typeface.

I was first drawn to this music in my impressionable youth - before I had anything to do with church other than as a musician. In the late 60s, there was not much of it around, certainly not on the Third Programme, but when I turned up in the summer of 1969 to sing Evensong in The Cathedral of The Isles with the newly-formed St Maura Singers, we had to learn quickly - a new psalm or two, the Magnificat to Tonus Peregrinus - and I had my first go at deciphering neums and four-line staves.

All this was a long time ago, I remember ... anyway, I've sung the psalms and Compline to plain chant over the years since then, and have discovered a thing or two. The first was that I found it easy to read once I had the hang of it, and to work out where the semitones fell (always the pitfall if you don't) and the implications of the interesting groupings of notes (that last link, by the way, gives considerably more detail). But after that, the biggest discovery was the wonderful sense of control, of the line conveying the words without the need for any irritating "interpretation" on my part, of the flexibility when a trained group (or a solo cantor) is able to give slightly different emphasis to one word by lingering infinitesimally on it - all this seemed to me to allow for meditation actually to take place without getting in the way. The pause at the central colon in the psalms turned out to be just right for the breath required for the second half, and the antiphonal singing allowed for the smooth flow from one verse to the next, without worry, without the need for any mnemonic. It felt relaxed and prayerful.

It isn't always thus. People can sing this stuff without any feeling for it at all and ruin the effect. Sometimes I've heard plainchant that might as well be someone selling coal in the street (they don't, any more, but I recall the cry of "coaaaaaal briquettes" from my youth). However, the same goes for any music, and there are murderous performances to be heard on the internet any day of the week. But if you're lucky enough to find yourself in a position where you can enjoy the feather on the breath of God that is eloquent plain chant, or better still to take part in making it happen, you'll know what music you'll hear in at least one of the many mansions of heaven.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Cross gets in the way ...

Paschal Candle in Holy Trinity by Sharon Barnard
Earlier today I found myself sitting at the computer in the quiet aftermath of an exuberant family Eucharist, trying to put on paper - for the local paper, in fact - what this last week has been about. I have, of course, failed. With three or four paragraphs at my disposal I knew it was doomed before I started, but as I finished I found myself Tweeting that resurrection is profoundly disturbing, and it was up and there before I even knew I'd posted it. Now, as I write, I can hear the choir of King's on the telly singing "Drop, drop slow tears" - and I'm back on Friday again, and that's disturbing too. How odd to revisit the Cross - but of course, that's it. We do it all the time, and this morning's exuberance and joy was in a sense "for the children".

Where am I going with this? Let me give another snapshot, this one of a moment as we were drifting to the door at the end of this morning's Eucharist. I overheard possibly the oldest member of the congregation declare to the person next to him that he didn't care for the big cross in the choir, and her reply that she liked it but it had got in the way, rather. It came to me that there was something to be said about that ordinary remark - because the Cross does "get in the way", keeps getting in the way, and  the significance of it can be a stronger influence on people than the day of Resurrection - the day in which we all suddenly become cheerful and joyous and tell each other that Christ has risen. I think it's the sudden cheer that leaves me reeling, not sure how to be, not sure how ...

I think I'm not far off what it must have been like, back then. I cannot see how the all-too-human followers of Jesus could feel anything but exhausted and incredulous at the news that his body was no longer there, and I imagine Mary Magdalene hardly daring to hope that what had happened to her wasn't a wishful dream. In a way it doesn't matter if that's how she and they reacted - what does matter is what happened as a result of this day. The long-term view, in a way.

I can still remember my first real Easter, the first time it had an effect on me. It was in 1973, and that's a lot of Easters ago. I think I'll perhaps post about that first Holy Saturday in the scented darkness of the Cathedral of The Isles (yes - there again) but not now. And I need to write about some of the other things I hold dear. But today - God showed us something, and we stand amazed. Exhausted, and amazed. And we don't really know what to do with our knowledge ... or at least, this writer doesn't.

Resurrection is profoundly disturbing, after all.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Birdsong in Gethsemane

In the darkling garden
a lone bird  drops
liquid notes like dark blood
beneath the quiet trees. And then
silence. And in the silence
the old struggle surges
as flesh and soul pull
apart. The body aches
to be the prayer, to feel
the God’s warmth
in the darkness. But
there is only stillness
and the blood’s song
and the everlasting longing
as somewhere far away
innocence sleeps.

C.M.M. 04/11

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week observed

Lady Chapel after Mass
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The picture here comes from the beginning of my personal Holy Week, when I spent three days at the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. I have done this for more years than I care to remember, and the effect is always to prepare me mentally for the Triduum - the experience of which would be difficult if approached from the business of my mind in the latter weeks of Lent.

So what is so special? Maybe a simple account will suffice. We arrived on Monday, worn out physically by a week of car journeys, singing, grandparenting and socialising - all good fun, but cumulatively exhausting. We were appalled to find, that morning, that our tenor was completely unable to sing because of a bug, and that one of our fellow-residents in the College was absolutely dripping with the cold and in fact grew more ill as the days passed. We carried hand gel everywhere and took to sniffing First Defence like addicts. We have, after all, two concerts coming up, one voice to a part. We could not catch a cold. We were not happy, and we wanted to go home.

However, we had a job to do - we had undertaken to sing Evensong for the three days; the Warden is a good tenor and loves to sing with us (he says, though he is not always serious ...); we had +Kevin to cheer us and Jonathan Cohen to play for us. And so we rehearsed, we sang plainsong, we made sure it was as perfect as we could make it. We attended Morning Prayer before breakfast, and Mass before lunch. The sun shone, we took walks by the sea and to the top of the island. And gradually the peace took a hold and we felt ourselves begin to relax.

The quiet rhythm of such a life is something hard to find when we're at home. At the Cathedral, we are free to concentrate on beauty, stillness and prayer. We were responsible only for our music-making; the organisation was in other hands. There was no cooking to do, no shopping, no phone ringing. There were interesting conversations, as well as utterly hilarious ones.

And now we are back in our home parish, and the experience goes on. We have responsibilities again, but personally I am better able to deal with them for having had none. And I am grateful, as always, for the opportunity to make music and worship in one of the most beautiful churches I can imagine.

I've sung in Cumbrae for 41 years. I fell off my metaphorical donkey in the same choir stalls as I now inhabit, and was confirmed there in September 1973. I used to pine every time I left, until I learned that I was able to return when I needed to. I have met and talked to some of the most significant people in my life there.

And it is there that I sing plainsong. I love plainsong. I'll be back ...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Episcopal hoolie on Cumbrae

Joyously random
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Well, that was another wonderful Argyll and The Isles hoolie. And Bishop Kevin has now been seated in his southern cathedra - in the Cathedral of The Isles, on the island of Cumbrae. The photo I've chosen for this post seems to me to sum up what I love about these events - and this is the kind of thing I first did in 1973, when I felt as if I'd been transported into a Fellini film.

The prayer over choir and clergy having been made with due solemnity, the thurifer, who was also MC for the day, led us out of the Lady Chapel door, round the outside loo, along the path past the annexe, down the stairs, across the lawn and up the stairs to the main door, on which Bishop Kevin would shortly thunder with his staff. But there is no way this assorted crew was going to make an orderly procession of it, as choristers who only sing together for special occasions hitched up their Whoopie Goldberg choir robes and ambled after the smoke, and it was of this I thought as Bishop Idris, the former Primus, used an idea given to him by the PB of the Episcopal Church in the USA.

This came in his sermon, in which he asked why the Bishop always came at the rear of the procession - like a Western shepherd rather than an Eastern one. The picture painted was of a circus procession, in which there was always someone bringing up the rear, armed with a bucket and shovel. We were not, exhorted +Idris, to leave our Bishop to clean up our mess.

The choir, as I said, had met that morning for what turned out to be rather less than two hours of rehearsal together, only half of which was actually in the church: the clergy choreography took up the first hour and even so didn't cater for the drama of the snapped thurible chain and the singed altar-cloth. But despite the potential for chaos (the words herding and hens come to mind) the service was actually lovely, and in places extremely moving. For me, the high point came during the Litany, when the bishop knelt in front of the altar and a stillness grew where before there had been movement and drama.

And I can't believe I've come so far without mentioning The Purvey. The lunch in the cloisters before the service, and the fantastic tea after it, were both miracles of catering and far too moreish for people who had work to do. The socialising was noisy to the point of riotous - who says the church is dying?

Of course I know that it's not like this every day. There are days when there is a handful of people at a service, and the organist has to preach as well as play. But what I will say is that I have been attending such services here for the past forty years, and renewal and excitement have been there throughout. I'd like to think, however, that it'll be a good few years before another bishop knocks on the door of the cathedral - maybe long enough for this alto to have hung up her red robe?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A plank of the past

I first read The Moving Toyshop in my teens. In fact, I may have been swotting for my Highers, or maybe the few O Grades I was compelled to sit in case I didn't make Higher (Science, Maths - that kind of thing). Be that as it may, I have a strong recollection of sitting in the small park in Marlborough Avenue, in the leafy environs of Glasgow's Broomhill, laughing aloud in the sunshine, to the distress  - and I think this is in itself a Crispinism - of all animate nature. And it was The Moving Toyshop that was so entertaining me that irregular French verbs didn't get a look in, though why I would be reading in the park instead of the garden I can't think - unless I knew I would be caught not swotting if I stayed at home.

I didn't read the book again - you tend to remember the plot of a 'tec if you re-read it too soon - and found that the intervening decades had in fact wiped all memory of plot clean from my slate, and left me with only the quotations that have become part of my daily discourse. I can only give a flavour here: this moment comes so near the beginning of the novel that my delight at having begun a re-read was unbounded. Cadogan, a poet, has missed the last train and hitched a late-night lift from a lorry driver. As he climbs into the cab of the lorry, this conversation ensues:

 "The Ancient Mariner did this better than me," said Cadogan cheerfully as they started off. "He at least managed to stop one of three."
"I read abaht 'im at school," the driver replied after a considerable pause for thought. "'A thahsand, thahsand slimy things lived on and so did I.' And they call that poetry." He spat deprecatingly out of the window.

I will leave the present reader to deduce what kind of life has allowed me to quote that bit of Ancient Mariner in that particular accent. Frequently.

Oh all right - I know it's a specialised sort of amusement, but it is so beautifully written - and I'd just love to replicate the moment when a bell-boy wanders through the bar of a hotel calling "telephone call for Mr T.S. Eliot" and Fen, the amateur sleuth who is also Oxford Professor of Eng. Lit., says "that's me" and leaves the room. (Oh all right again - I'd have to be Sylvia Plath or somesuch...). And it was in this very book, before I'd ever darkened the door of an Anglican church, that I learned that the Lord's Prayer at Evensong is curtailed before  "...for thine is the Kingdom..."

So there you have it. An education in itself, beautifully written, extremely silly, utterly dated - and completely hilarious. I'm going to go back to another Crispin soon ...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Riotous Science

Now what shall I do?
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
What a day! My first ever visit to the Science Centre in Glasgow took place today in full-on Grandma mode, and very interesting it was too. The photo here shows the young children's area before it became wildly busy, but already my granddaughter is a blur in the middle distance as she sprints from the crawling tunnel complex back to the hydraulic play area.

I suppose it was a similar moment that led, some forty minutes later, to our losing her for five minutes - a heart-stopping five minutes of pounding round a multitude of small bodies looking for the one that answered to "Catriona". She had simply wandered in the wrong direction while my attention was elsewhere. I have now recovered, though Mr B, having suffered a second disappearance when Cat vanished through a door in Wonderland that was too small for him to follow, may never be quite the same again.

However, sanity was restored by a quiet visit to the African giant snails. They are truly huge - about the size of my hand - and chomp lettuce leaves with an alarming intensity that makes the Very Hungry Caterpillar look like an amateur. We acted out a conversation with the chomping one in French, much to the consternation of another child who happened along.

The Centre is a riotous place on a school holiday, but there is a wonderfully diverse range of things to do and see. And for the record: I was much better at getting the bike wheels to turn than Annabel Goldie on the telly t'other day. I felt quite smug.

Now, however, I merely feel my age ...

Friday, April 01, 2011

Sin and self

Been thinking about sin. Or Sin, if you like. (It's Lent, after all.) In many ways it's an old-fashioned concept these days. It's also a word that is bandied about as an adjective in current thought, when applied to instances of badness - but that's a use which seems to let too many of us off, in a way.

After all, I haven't murdered anyone, nor have I cheated anyone out of their rights, or their money, or their partner. I tend not to lie, and I try to avoid fruit with a big food-miles tag. Most of the people I live among could say the same, I'm sure - especially, surely, all the good folk in church. And yet every week, or more often if we're particularly pious, we admit to having sinned in "thought, word and deed". What do we think we have done? Do we think at all? Do we just say these words because they're there?

I still have a long way to go in this line of thought. But I wonder if perhaps sin is rooted in self-absorption - from the inability to walk in someone else's shoes, or the refusal to do so. And if you're a religious person, you might recognise that as something that ensures that God doesn't get a look in. Not really. And then there will be a long string of consequences ...