Sunday, October 30, 2011

Accentuate the positive?

Chorus responds
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Been thinking about positives, perhaps to counter the foul day we've just had - rain and wind and low cloud hour after hour, though now there's a bright star mocking me as I look out before bed. But to the things that make life interesting, rewarding ...

Like the other night, when I went to Ayr to hear Voskresenije perform there. I have organised maybe as many as eight performances in Dunoon by this Russian choir, but this year I had to go elsewhere to hear them and to renew the friendship with the conductor that has built up over the years. So ... I am energised by live music, by interacting with people from other cultures, by the laughter that arises from imperfect understanding of another's language. And I enjoy bearhugs - big Russian ones.

What else makes a difference? I enjoy the company of clever people, people who have ideas, people who enjoy sharing them. I don't care if I've met them before - as long as the conversation begins, it is good. I love conversation.

Tomorrow brings another energising activity: a performance. I love singing, and tomorrow our female ensemble will perform in Dunoon and wow an unsuspecting audience with Songbird and other great songs. Adrenaline surges are good for the psyche.

And then there's a good book ... for I have always, as long as I can recall, been able to lose myself in fiction. And movies, with great sound.

All these can happen, and do, regardless of the weather. But I really could do with some sun, just to complete the picture. And less rain. J' attendrai ...

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief...

One of the very first expressions I learned in my youthful study of poetry came with the ballads that constituted much of the diet deemed suitable for fourteen-year-olds in the late '50s. "The willing suspension of disbelief", I was told, was the essential ingredient in the enjoyment of any drama, whether it was a ballad involving talking crows or a play whose action hinged on the say-so of a ghost. I was reminded of this in the immediate aftermath of the final episode of the wonderful Spooks on BBC1 last night, when more than one friend opined on Facebook that it was a bit predictable and unduly melodramatic, and now I can't start work without writing, briefly, about why I think this is sad.

I have to say that my disbelief was well and truly suspended - not just last night, but all through the series - though I must admit that, very properly, I don't have a clue what goes on in the machinations of 5. But what I am well-attuned to is emotional truth and good acting, and I'd say we had that in spades. Look at Harry. Last night the character was put through the trauma of having the woman he loved die in his arms, and the actor had to express grief in a manner in keeping with the character he played. Have you ever wondered how someone you know, perhaps fear, certainly respect, would react to an extreme situation? The acting in this scene was on a par with the greatest screen acting - different in scale, obviously, from that on a stage - in that all the rawness was expressed in near silence, with gestures redolent of hopelessness, disgust, love, compassion, loss ...

You get the picture? We don't need our drama to reflect our own narrow lives. Whether it's the best episodes of Star Trek - think of Picard in full Shakespearian mode in First Contact - or the death of Hamlet, we want catharsis: the purging of pity and terror so necessary to the dramatists of ancient Greece.

Maybe the trouble is the disengaged watching of drama that occurs in our own sitting-rooms. Maybe we're too used to discussing the action as it occurs, putting the TV on hold while we answer the phone or make some tea, playing computer games at the same time as we watch. Catharsis isn't possible without complete involvement. And I'd argue that complete involvement precludes the self-awareness that criticises technique - unless, of course, the drama itself is unworthy of attention.

But Spooks? Spooks was worthy all right.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Poets in a Landscape

A long time ago - we're talking half a century here - I found a dun-coloured hardback book in the school library and took it out for a fortnight. I took it out again later in the year as my mother hadn't finished it when I first brought it home, and I noticed that no-one else had borrowed it in the intervening months. I suspect it was only there because the author had been a pupil at the school. Later, I was to regret not having nicked it when I had the chance, but I was an honest adolescent and it didn't cross my mind. Years later, my mother spotted the same book, reissued as a "Lost Treasure" by Prion, and bought it as a present for me, unregcognisable in the attractive paperback illustrated here. And so Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape found its way onto my bookshelves in 1999, and I see that it's still possible to buy it online.

It has taken me till now to re-read it in its entirety. Maybe it's not a book to be galloped through with the voracious speed of my teenage self, for apart from the section on Catullus I recalled little of it. Highet, whom my parents apparently knew at university, draws pictures of the great Roman poets - Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Propertius, Ovid, Juvenal - in their own locations, visiting their special places in Italy, seeking out ruins and rumours, legends and literary fragments, recreating the lives they led and the people they encountered.

At the first time of reading this book, I had visited only one of the places he describes. The so-called Grotte di Catullo at Sirmione, which the poet know as Sirmio, are in fact the ruins of a huge lakeside house of a later date than the poet, but the peninsula jutting out into Lake Garda is an evocative place, and even as a teenager I found myself quoting Tennyson as I walked round 'sweet Catullus' all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio' - for Highet is never afraid to complement the works of the ancient poets with their more recent echoes in the poems of others.

The book takes us through the Italian countryside and the boiling streets of Rome, beside the cool springs of Clitumnus and the echoes of the now-ruined Forum, translating chunks of Latin poetry into his own, preserving the metre and as far as possible the tone, so that someone with no knowledge of Latin could still feel they were within touching distance of the works as well as the life of ancient Rome. His description of hot exploration of the Italian countryside as he sought out unremarked ruins is as powerful as his evocation of the Dark Ages, when the glories of the Palatine Hill were ruined and buried and dogs scavenged around the capitals of hidden columns. A fairly recent visit I made to Rome has left me with powerful impressions of my own to recall - including pictures painted of the period before archeologists started work on these strange mounds and apparent caverns, but above all it is the sound of the poetry that has returned.

Whether I was realising how the metre of popular songs worked - as exemplified by a line about Julius Caesar: Watch your wives, you poor civilians, here comes
              Baldhead Lover-Boy!

or, as I suddenly recalled it from Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March:
              Here he comes, the bald whore-monger - Romans
              lock your wives away! -
or taking delight in some erudite explanation of some facet of language that I had never previously considered, this book proved a joy.

I may even get down my copy of Horace Odes (Odes lll, if you're interested) and see if I remember how the Latin works ... O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I've just been watching the film of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I haven't read the book, and I'm interested to read a review tonight which reminds me that it is "a holocaust book for children." I don't think I for one moment thought of the film as anything but adult, despite the fact that the events are seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. Perhaps viewing his world through the lens of a camera meant that I was free to interpret in my own way, find my own knowledge flooding in with the images - like that of the smoke from the death camp rising foully over the trees - in such a way as to encapsulate the child's innocence and look over and around it.

I found it very powerful, this film. I'm fascinated by the apparently normal family lives of Nazis immersed in the horrors of the Final Solution, by the glimpses of a humanity suppressed - perhaps permanently - by the demands of the job of extermination. The film was full of foreboding, from the moment when the family of the Kommandant arrives at their new house in the country, a gloomy, echoing building of small windows - one of which, in the boy's bedroom, commands a distant view of what he thinks is a farm - right through to the end which I couldn't help wishing would not be so. The gradual realisation by the boy's mother as to what exactly was happening in the camp, the growing tensions within the family as the 12 year old daughter became Nazified - these, I felt, were explored in the film at an adult level, being conveyed less in words than in expressions, gestures, the glance of an eye that was quickly averted.

The tension of the last fifteen minutes of the film, and the understated conclusion, left me wrung out and sad to an extent I had not expected - more, even, than the much bigger sweep of Schindler's List. I'm glad I recorded it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Quietus made with a bare bodkin?

In P.D. James' excellent novel The Children of Men, there is a scene where the protagonists come upon a Quietus - the moment when a group of old people for whom there are no longer enough carers are gathered to process quietly into the sea. Bingo - another lot of old folk gone.

I was irresistibly reminded of that this morning when I attended the local Red Cross centre to get my annual flu jab. My lovely GP practice had taken over the centre to process its old and vulnerable with maximum efficiency, and to that end we were handed a small ticket - a raffle ticket, come to think of it - with a number on it and told to sit and wait in a room packed to the gunwales with ... old people. It reminded me of buying cheese at the deli counter in the supermarket. "Don't worry, they're moving pretty quickly," we were told.

And they were. Every minute or so a doctor or a practice nurse - all casually dressed, as in a dress-down Friday only it's Sunday sort of fashion - would appear at a door and shout above the hubbub of what sounded like a particularly jolly party "number 120 please" or whatever, and another old person (sorry to keep saying this, but they were - none of the lot we saw appeared to be of the young vulnerable variety, apart from an obviously pregnant girl) would hurry off, arms bared, jackets, jerseys and cardis flapping in their wake. Mr B and I studied the forms we had signed. The surgery logo (right) suddenly seemed sinister: At the bottom of the road there is the promenade. Seagulls wheel overhead. We have listened to your heart. It is time to go ...

Suddenly it's me. 127. I go into a room where there are several tables - old school desks? - and sit beside one. The jab, done while the nurse and I share my growing mirth at the situation, is virtually painless and over in seconds. She says nothing about having a wee seat for a bit - this is something several people, including Mr B, are told - and I exit, still giggling.

Spared for another year, I guess ...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birthday remembering

My mother, Margaret Findlay, would have been 100 years old today. She died seven years ago, and at the time I was still working, didn't write a blog and owned a computer that has since had a brain transplant - another one. So I can't find what I said at her funeral, though I was content that it summed up much of what I knew of her. But we're no longer in the place of funerals and what precedes them; I'm back today thinking of the mother I knew when she was younger than I am now - as in the accompanying photo. I think it comes from the mid-1960s, having been taken, by me,  in Dubrovnik. She is obviously smiling primarily at some remark being made by my father, who was usually behind the camera, but is giving me that familiar look of attention-while-something-else-is-on-my-mind. She loved these holidays in the sun; both my parents turned effortlessly brown without ever sunbathing and were far more relaxed and cheerful than I ever was.

A life of 93 years plainly takes more than a single blog post to recall. There are insights on the blog I've just finished, insights into the person who was there before I was born. So today I'll celebrate instead the memory of someone who was, I now realise, incredibly wise and sensible in her dealings with the world and with people. Some people have a habit of asking, in moments of stress or irritation, 'What would Jesus do?'. I find, as life flows around me in currents that pull me in directions I could never have imagined, tugging me into situations where I too need wisdom, that I have changed that question. 'What would Mother do?' I ask.

I think she'd laugh at me now. I wish she was still here to ask. I wish I'd known the serious, clever 19-year-old in the graduation picture on the right - she got bored early in 6th year at school, left at 16, got into Glasgow to do an MA, and graduated before she was 20. Perhaps that wishing is what populates Heaven for some believers - maybe for more than admit to it. But as it is, I'll remember, today especially, I'll go on trying to emulate that hard-won wisdom, I'll be glad I made her laugh, glad that she liked my poetry even though it came as a late surprise to her.

And tonight, we're having a party - her two daughters and the sons-in-law Margaret Findlay was so grateful to have. We shall drink champagne in a toast to a woman who signed the pledge in early childhood but who relented in her 80s when we began taking bubbly to her birthday lunches. Here's to you, mother - cheers!


Today I would have phoned -
 wished to share the small
 details of my life, the
 safe return, the laughing
 at the rain which fell
 as if the Flood would come.
 But had I rung the number
 as familiar as my name
 you would not be there.
 A stranger’s voice would say
 your words, and the strangeness
 would be too much to bear.
 And contemplating this
 a glacial shifting in my soul
 gave promise that in weeks not lived
 the frozen tears would find the way
 and spill into a distant sea like
 drops into the ocean of my love.

May 2005

Friday, October 07, 2011

Macs I have known

It was coming - we all knew that. It was just a matter of when. But knowing someone is terminally ill doesn't really lessen the impact when the end comes, not even when one has been with the person almost to the end. So it was, I think, with the death of Steve Jobs. And though my only connection with the man was the tenuous one of knowing that my #1 son had interviewed him once, I have been using Macs more or less from the start.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the teacher who had started the latest incarnation of the Dunoon Grammar School magazine left for another post, and the then pupil editor, one Neil McIntosh, decided it would be efficient if I were to take over from him. After all, I could check copy accurately, and I had a car - as well as being sufficiently malleable to run down the road in said car to retrieve any important kit forgotten by the editor. At that time the school had two Apple Macs sitting in the maths classroom that was the hub of computing in the school, and as I took over the pupil editorial team had decided they would start in-house publication of the Pupils' View instead of taking copy down to the local paper. Somehow they learned/taught themselves how to use Macs instead of the BBCs that had previously reigned, and the empire was born.

As these machines were, in theory, portable, and had custom-made carry-bags to facilitate carriage, we tended to have one home at the weekends, and gradually I became familiar with a mouse and such things as hypercard. When #1 son left school and started on a journalism course, he acquired his own - by now a Mac 2 Classic - which we still have, in its box, in our loft. Later, we substituted a Mac LC for the Amstrad we had at home and the ZX Spectrum on which the budding journo had started at the age of 10, and in the fullness of time connected it to the Internet.

The Pupils' View eventually made enough money to purchase its own computer, and a shiny blue bubble of an iMac appeared in my classroom. So desirable was it that we chained it to the desk with steel cables, and life was never quite the same again. I learned to use Adobe Pagemaker, and was able to teach other non-geeky types - literary, but non-geeky - to use it. The empire grew, as did the collection of Mac Classics, discarded by Business Studies and the like, along my back wall - still functioning well enough for the juniors to produce copy and my senior students to type their RPRs on.

Currently, we own two iMacs - one each. Still sitting ready but disused in the loft is the LCII. I have a 6 year old laptop that saved my sanity recently when my iMac needed a brain transplant, and I have an iPad. I have used PCs - they were issued to staff for registration in my last years in teaching, and I used a friend's to upload photos and Skype home when I spent a month in New Zealand. I was able to make them do my bidding - but they seemed unfamiliar and clunky and on one occasion I and the owner of the PC were unable to locate a bunch of photos after I'd downloaded them.  I was not impressed, and had not the slightest desire ever to own one.

People much cleverer than I at this sort of thing seem devoted to their PCs and don't like Macs at all. But I have never had to struggle, never even had to use one of #2 son's much sought-after Mac Guides (produced about 1990). I've found that once I'd seen something work on a Mac, I've been able to do it - or even to work it out after a word at a Teach Meet or whatever. Nowadays, I don't know how I could live as I do without the communication I enjoy with people all over the world. I'd be an increasingly grouchy pensioner stuck in Dunoon with an increasingly useless passenger ferry unable to cope with travel three seasons out of four. (Don't say a word).

So, for my life as it is, I have one person to thank. That person is Steve Jobs.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A cold turkey

Well, that was interesting. As I've mentioned in passing, I recently had to cancel a holiday because of back trouble. A low disc - L3, I believe - had misbehaved sufficiently to put pressure on a nerve, causing referred pain in front of my hip and down my thigh. I still have a large numb area on one leg, akin to the sensation caused by a dental anaesthetic. The pain was bad enough to require strong pain relief, and I ended up taking co-codamol 30/500 in gradually decreasing numbers for the best part of three weeks. The relief it gave, especially in the early days when I took two tablets every 6 hours and 400mg Ibuprofen every 8 hours, was immense. No pain - just a dreamy vagueness and lethargy. Great.

I took the last dose of co-codamol on Sunday evening. Monday I felt smug, stupidly - my back seemed better almost all day, and I only needed a couple of plain paracetamol to be able to sleep in comfort that night. Tuesday, however, was another matter. I had to go to three back-to-back Diocesan meetings in Oban, and by the end of the two-hour car journey to get to them (and I wasn't driving) I felt sure I was catching flu. Paracetamol took the edge off the aching shoulders and legs and the pounding headache, but failed to deal with the sudden floods of heat, the stomach cramps, the burning soft palate. I became less and less able to focus on the matter in hand, and by the time we got to discussing diocesan communications, I was barely civil.

The drive home was made bearable by easy conversation, drinks of water, and curiously strong mints. By this time I had considered the possibility of withdrawal symptoms, but feared I might instead have infected a whole room-full of Piskies - and the diocese of Argyll and The Isles can't afford to lose people in this manner. I headed straight for Google and found reams of stuff from people whose intake of codeine had far exceeded mine, but whose symptoms were all familiar. Some of the comments on blogs and help forums (fora?) made sensible suggestions about dealing with the situation, and several were adamant about going cold turkey - not tailing off the drugs, not taking another one just to get through the night.

Today has been better, though I still had the headache at breakfast. Now, at 11.30pm, I note that I've reached the magic 72 hour figure which should mean it's over, more or less. Apparently that's what it takes to get rid of the last traces. I was prescribed the codeine by one doctor and told how often to take it, and in what combination, by another. It was wonderfully effective. But I think I would have liked to have been told how I would feel when I stopped taking it, and perhaps advised how best to deal with the symptoms of withdrawal.

And I shall never again wonder how people become addicted to the stuff.