Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lights in the darkness

..and more candles
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
All right - I'm late with a blog post on Christmas . Tough. I've not had a minute at my own proper computer till now, and I draw the line at blogging on my phone while entertaining a two-year-old - of which more, perhaps, anon. But now, after a restorative walk on the fringe of the forest with my pal, I want to remember what happened before the post-Christmas church takes over and moves us 12 years on before we've had the Magi yet.

For it was a splendid season, crowded but splendid. Having retained the Advent feel right up to the quiet Eucharist with the surprisingly large congregation on Advent 4, we had a full church again that afternoon for a Carol Service. Our choral group 8+1 sang, the children paraded up and down with camels, shepherds and random sheep, the mulled wine flowed and we all grew mellow and cheerful. And then, in the close proximity that had seemed so impossible in prospect - how to gear up again so soon? - we came back to church for Midnight Mass. The pic shows what we saw. And although we had to put the nave lights on because people might need to see words of carols and such, this is more or less what I saw throughout the service. There are benefits from sitting in the front row .... There were carols serious and carols frivolous: the former during communion, the latter during the serving of the cider cup (we're dead versatile when it comes to beverages). Mr B and I had our annual fun singing with our friends who happen to sing tenor and soprano. There was incense. And - joy - the crib was under the altar, and looked amazing. The starry backdrop paper was a final stroke of genius, and I recognised the packing straw from one of our presents ...

Rudolph takes tickets
And then .... Well, then we had the annual dash to Edinburgh on Christmas morning, on a ferry staffed by Santa and his crew, and the joy of a dinner cooked by the hand of another and the conflagration of the pudding cooked by mine. And the children were as high as kites and very amusing, and ... and ... and we forgot to take the remains of our cake home and had to go back for it, turning off the westbound M8 at Livingstone. Think another hour on the journey - worth it, I reckon.

Today, however, it's hard to realise that less than a week has passed since that magical night. And really this is what has fuelled this post. The anticipation, the emotion, the celebration - these are all features of birth itself, human birth in human homes. I feel sad for the people who have their houses decorated at the beginning of December, who have no concept of Advent, of waiting, and who then tear down their lights and throw out their trees and say thank heavens that's over before it's even New Year's day. I can't help wondering how they'd see it if their standard response were to be applied to the birth of a child in their family. Picture it:

Four weeks before the baby is born, the family start decorating the house with all manner of lights, greenery and so on. The pregnant mother helps a bit, but her mind is, understandably, on other things. Occasionally there are drunken parties, all themed around the approaching birth. On the night of the birth itself, the family assemble, fight a bit. Next day they have a massive party, eat themselves sick and drink themselves into oblivion. But three days later, when the mother brings the baby home, she finds that the house is bare, tidy but bleak, and everyone has gone home. There are no more celebrations, no sense of joy. As far as everyone's concerned, it's all over until the next baby - or something.

Silly, isn't it. But some of us have only really been celebrating for less than a week, and we're still really happy about remembering what happened and demonstrating that happiness. Because what we are celebrating changed everything, just the way the birth of a new baby changes everything. And you can't put change back in the loft till next year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Prayer and prayers.

I was listening to Desert Island Discs yesterday - or rather, it was on in the background and I suddenly became interested. The castaway for the week was Sister Wendy Beckett, and what she had to say about her life - in a caravan - fascinated me. (Quite apart from the notion of living in a caravan - not having done this thing I can't help wondering if they're warm enough in winter, cool enough when it's hot ... that sort of thing.)

The focal point of her life is the Eucharist, and the occupation without which, she told us, is prayer, contemplative prayer. I think I knew this already, but I found myself thinking about solitary prayer in a different way. Apparently, Sister Wendy gets up at midnight and spends seven hours in contemplative prayer. Put like that, it sounds to the would-be Christian such as I am like a penance. Seven hours for me would end either in sleep or in complete distraction. Someone like me gapes at the thought and - in her more self-chastising moments -  wonders if she ought to try harder. But listening to Sr. Wendy speak, it became apparent that the hours spent thus are for her an enormous pleasure. It seemed to me that she sinks into prayer in much the same manner as someone who is looking after a young baby, say, sinks into bed; she longs for the time in prayer as a sleep-deprived person longs for oblivion.

The brief moments of such prayer that I have achieved were enough to convince me that such attentiveness can be hugely rewarding, and I suddenly saw this apparently rigorous lifestyle as something chosen, something pleasurable, not something to feel humbled by. Wendy herself admitted that she doesn't need people, she needs God; she may be wonderful on the telly talking about art but really what she was going to miss on this putative desert island was the Eucharist. Someone, she said, once remarked how she didn't need other people, and she didn't think it was necessarily a compliment.

People like me need other people, connections, feedback, performance. Solitude requires distraction. In a way, I suppose you could regard the contemplative life as one spent largely in the silent company of one person. Extend the metaphor to communication: if prayer is a phone call to God, it can be brief or it can go on for hours. But often in human existence these days, it is enough to receive a brief but loving call - or even a message on social media. It's the checking in that counts. So I'm going to recognise that my full life isn't a drawback or a hindrance, or something to be deplored. It's the way I thrive, and as long as I make frequent phonecalls it doesn't matter how long they last.

And just once in a while, if I'm lucky, I'll manage to stay on the phone longer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Random Russian phone notes

The White Lake, from Kirilov

I was pottering about on my phone the other day - the sort of thing you do while sitting on the ferry - and discovered the notes I'd made randomly during our Russian trip. As the notes were made on the hoof, as it were, they are necessarily brief, and some of them so obscure that they fail as prompts. But I thought in a last roundup before I finish off a possible slide show for the new year, I'd recall a few of them.

The first one reminds me that in St Petersburg they can expect to see 20 - 30 sunny days per year. How lucky were we, then, to have sun on three consecutive days of our stay there? Let alone that early October sun being warm enough for me to sit on my balcony for an hour with a book?  And I was told that St Petersburg stands on no fewer than 42 islands; I suppose a close look at the map would have helped me there, but it's a lot of islands - and a lot of inland waterways and bridges. Later, presumably in a restaurant, I was told how to say "Just a little" in Russian - it's  чуть-чуть, pronounced choo-choot.

On another day, another note, in Yaroslavl, I was shown the church of St John Chrysostom, where the congregation are Old Believers. You can read a daunting history of that schism here, but briefly it seems to have arisen over the influence of Greek Orthodoxy and the Latinising favoured by Peter the Great which the schismatics disapproved of. I think. We also heard of how during the siege of Leningrad cats from Yaroslavl were sent to hunt the Leningrad rats, and their descendants now live a privileged life in the Hermitage.

I dare say that I could spend time reading history and guide books, but at this stage I have found that the stimulus of being there and having odd bits of information drip-fed in situ makes a far more lasting impression. I have a suspicion that this may always be the case. It would certainly transform history lessons.

As a result of the phone revelations, I have revised my post about Julia, our little onboard guide. On the last day of sailing, when some of the young interpreters told us about their lives, she revealed that she was a Kalmyk. There was never quite enough time to take it all in - but I'm catching up.

No, I shall never forget Russia.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Warmth, light and love: the Advent journey

If you're really old - a silver surfer par excellence - you might remember this book: Footprints in the Snow, by the author with the unlikely name of Racey Helps. It seems to have been the first book he wrote, in 1946, and I must have been an early fan. (No, I couldn't read in 1946, but ...). I was thinking, as I wrote my last post about Advent, about what it is that we feel in this season, and it was when I was musing that it is certainly not a feeling confined to Christians that the memory of this book surfaced.

Today as I write the darkness of the early night has already engulfed us at 4.30 in the afternoon. It has been a foul day, and though the weather this week has until now been sunny and cold, it was threatening - the menace of black ice under the sun, the stubborn slush that would have you upended in a trice. It gives me pleasure to have returned to my warm house, to put on lights and fires - central heating isn't enough: I need orange flames to complete the setting - and to be safely inside for the evening. Better, we are expecting friends to come round and sing with us, sing Advent music and enjoy the shared experience.

That is a particular instance, fixed very specifically in time and place and inclination. The child's book above reaches the same area of contrast: that which separates cold, wet darkness, loneliness and threat  from warmth and love. From my memory, the little anthropomorphic characters with names like Millicent, Barnaby and Nubby Tope (that's the mole) find themselves frightened and menaced on a cold winter night and end up warm and safe and loved. It happens all over the place - in Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even in Spooks (MI5 HQ being the safe hub where danger only rarely and shockingly obtrudes and usually happens outside). And it is there, I believe, at the heart of what happens in Advent, and particularly poignantly when Advent is experienced in the cold darkness of a northern winter.

That's where the rush to put up lights, to flock to warm, cheerful shops, to drink in cosy pubs comes from especially strongly at this time. The world is a hard place, but we can crowd together in a communal setting that will give us the illusion at least of being part of a group; we buy presents and send greetings and when these are reciprocated we have the warm glow of ... love? And whether it's real or commercialised, people feel the need for it, feel this need always but especially in the dark times.  If we are mature participants in a tradition that says wait, prepare, sense the darkness because of what you know will come, don't try to break it too early, then we savour the possibilites of our tradition to nurture our need and supply us with the realisation of love that did come, that does come. But if we are so wretched because of our physical situation, or our emotional or mental state, it can be harder to feel beyond the loneliness and threat of the season - and that's when the stories come in.

I loved that little book Footprints in the Snow. I can remember reading it, in my bed, in the winter - and I cannot recall reading it on a light summer evening. Very early, I think, I realised the attraction of the warmth and light and love at the end of a hard journey. I believe we are all like this, and we are all searching, whatever we believe, for just that: warmth, light, love. If we can help to provide that as well as need it, we are doing well.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Advent: waiting in the moment

Advent again. And every year, a little more suddenly than the preceding year, the same ritual tasks - that moment when you realise that it's time to forage in the forest (and we won't tell where) for just the right selection of greenery, from the delicate lace branches that droop below the candle wreath to the wonderful pink berries from the church grounds that were obviously designed by the Creator to complement the liturgical colours, the chilly morning in the empty church when fingers fumble with the secateurs and drop spiny leaves on the carpet. This year we added the cool scent of eucalyptus to the wreath for the pleasure of doing so, and the finished article was more ebulliently leafy than any of its predecessors. We wonder if anywhere else does it quite like this ... but we doubt it.*

Shortly after that I made my Christmas cake, thinking, as always, of the first time I did this, heavily pregnant and extremely sore after sitting down on black ice while shopping and deciding that I'd be happier standing, baking, than sitting and worrying. Stir up Sunday may no longer have its own collect - Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people ...  - but that's the day the fruit goes in the sherry, or the sherry in the fruit, and a week later the cake is made and drizzled with the left-over liquor. Later I shall turn my mind to puddings, brandy butter, cranberry sauce ...

And then there will be cards to think of. Is it inane still to send cards when I could greet so many people through Facebook and Twitter? Was it always daft to give them to friends we see all the time, or to the family we shall spend Christmas with? But I remember how I used to love writing the few cards I sent as a child, loved receiving them - and there's a part of me can't bear to give this up. I have dealt with presents for the grandchildren, and refuse to panic about their parents, let alone anyone else - present-giving should be a joy, not a worry.

Tonight, however, I shall be doing what I most enjoy: singing the music of the season, rehearsing carols for Christmas. And on Sunday I'm expecting to participate in a wonderful, quiet, dark, candle-lit Evensong, at which Mr B and I will sing with two friends, singing the music of the waiting and the longing that is Advent, repeating the glorious setting of my own words that is the Advent Song we premiered last year and which is now obviously reaching so many people on YouTube. I listen to it, and the wonder returns; I know that singing it will take me to a place that nothing else can.

Of all the seasons, this is the one to restore the mystery and awake the longing that can too often be submerged in the busyness of life - even church life. It's good to take time to wait in the moment.

*For the sharp-eyed and critical, I can report that by the time Advent Sunday came, the altar frontal was purple - a faded, pinky-purple, but definitely not red. Just saying ...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Plotless novel of the religious life

My mother gave me a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel The Corner That Held Them for Christmas in 1992. I read it at the time with moderate enjoyment; I have a feeling that my life then meant I only read in bed, for I failed to be properly engaged with this, a story of which the heroine is a convent, a story which has no real plot. Perhaps it's necessary to read it in a shorter time, to give it due attention. The convent of Oby, in a hidden corner of Norfolk, was founded in the twelfth century by Brian de Retteville in memory of his wife, Alianor, who had once dishonoured and always despised him. The story opens thus: Alianor de Retteville lay on her bed and looked at Giles who was her lover. Ok, you think, she's going to end up a nun...and we'll follow her story. Great. But it doesn't work like that.

As the back cover of my edition tells us: A good convent should have no history. Its life is held with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly ... Yet the events of history carry a certain exhilaration with them. This book is rather like that ideal convent; only it has history instead of heroes. The nuns are human, but they have their eyes on heaven - some of the time. The priest who comes to them as a gift from heaven during the Black Death - is he all that he seems? But soon he is subsumed into the life of the convent; Prioresses come and go; the tower is completed and collapses; nuns die, are disgraced, disappear; the Bishop makes a visitation.

At my second reading - when to be honest I could remember only the beginning from twenty years ago - I loved it. I was completely hooked, finishing it in a rush before heading off on holiday, unwilling to let it wait till I came home. It's like a window into a religious community, one of which you see the start but which will live on once you shut the window again; a walk alongside the often worldly sisters who in their ambitions, squabbles, jealousies and pleasures seem fit inhabitants of this Benedictine convent which was established for such chequered motives.

The period is depicted convincingly, with all its miseries and fears, its discomfort and instability, and the language is convincing without being in any way archaic. "We were interrupted, were we not?" says the prior of another religious house to the prioress of Oby. "By the way, what became of your mad priest?"

I shan't tell you. But if you can get hold of this excellent book, do.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Teacher training - some questions

I keep getting into conversations about education these days. What's the matter with me? I've obviously fallen into lassitude to be so easily dragged back to my former self. Today's was about the people who teach the teachers - those aspirants who've gone through the selection process and made it to training college. Now, I'm basing some of what I'm about to say on the assumption that the government don't think the current selection process is sufficiently rigorous, and the rest on my own memory of my year at college. And that, best beloved, was not yesterday, nor even last year. I actually know nothing at all about the people who teach the teachers these days, and nothing at all about how they got their jobs in the first place. But I'm going to toss a few thoughts around nonetheless - and perhaps some gentle reader will be able to lighten my darkness.

I'm going to start with a few questions:
What makes someone go for a job in a College of Education? Presumably they start off in schools. Are college staff significantly better paid? Or do they prefer to work in a less challenging environment?

How are they selected? Are they required to demonstrate mastery of their academic subject? To show how well they teach a class? To talk a storm at an interview? Is there any written examination or practical test (maybe like preaching to a congregation who are looking for a new minister?)

Having got the job, what is their primary aim? To demonstrate how to do the same job as the teachers the students experienced perhaps 4 years ago? To show how to put a lesson across? To discuss new techniques and new media? (I know of at least one lecturer who might well answer in the affirmative to that). To ensure that their students actually like children before they start?

Do they spend much time teaching in classrooms as a CPD exercise?

And I'm going to reflect:
When I was at college, I loathed it. After a 3 year MA course I found it at once restrictive and vague. Quite apart from having to be there from 9-4 and wear a skirt (both, presumably, easing us back into required behaviour for the job) I actually had no idea what I was learning about. This was especially true in my two subject areas. In English, I learned nothing at all. Nothing. In Latin, the nice little man who taught us (a class of 4 students) had such a boring delivery that I routinely fell asleep. It's embarrassing when your head actually hits the desk, in a class of 4.

There were classes in Educational Psychology - which is where I think I heard the instruction that when confronted by an unruly class we were to "exhaust the response". And classes in Drama, which I loathed - I can't remember why, but the lecturer kept coming to look for us in the cafeteria at the start of the afternoon, so we were obviously not keen. And were there discrete classes in Methods, or was that in the subject classes?

In all that time, no-one ever told us that it was essential not to be boring. Mind you, if they had, we might have laughed in their faces; I have never been so bored so consistently for so long. And no-one ever suggested that we had to be passionate about our subject and about communicating that passion. Naturally, no-one ever gave us practical work in demonstrating how we might do that.

Yes, I learned something in that year at college. But I learned it in the three schools where I was sent on teaching practice - by watching some excellent teaching, by talking to the people I'd been watching, by making mistakes and suffering the slow death of the period when you've run out of material and don't have anything to put in its place.

And 30 years later, I'd say I was still learning. But I always knew that there were still people out there living behind a barrier of worksheets, boring their pupils to death, sending them to sleep in the period after lunch.

So, if you're out there, the person who knows the answers to the above, gonnae put me out of my misery?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Testing the teacher

Staving off the tedium of cough-recovery inactivity, I was ploughing through yesterday's Sunday Times when I came across a piece about the proposal to raise entry standards for wannabe primary teachers. (Actually I'm not certain about that last qualification - the paper was certainly talking about primary teachers, but there was a lack of clarity ...) Anyway, I had a flashback to my own primary education, during which I was taught by two men and five women, six of whom were Glasgow MA graduates and one a BSc. They all wore their hoods to prizegiving. They were fiercely proud of their work and of the school, and some of them were also pretty fierce, in a respect-inducing sort of way. The only time I ever saw one of them at a loss was the hapless BSc who taught us in P7, for he became entangled in the thickets of English grammar and had to appeal, in a note home via me, to my father for assistance. Less strange than you might think - they were old buddies, and when I came in with homework that was different from that of the other 39 in my class, he realised he was in unsuspected deep water. (He might not have noticed the juxtaposition of metaphors in that story, but the formidable Miss Campbell would not have liked it).

When I was a secondary teacher, I never felt out of my depth in my own subject. Had I had to teach P7 maths, it might have been another story - though I can still do long division, for what it's worth. Perhaps  a subject-based degree is not such a useful qualification for a Primary teacher - but its possession at least shows a level of study and competence without which an underlying confidence might well be lacking. I still tend to rate people by their ability to write competent and properly-spelled English as an indicator of basic education, and I still expect teachers not to come out with such expressions as "I seen" and "I done" - or, worse still, "Ah seen" and "Ah done". It's even worse when this is a common feature of the speech of the English teacher of one's own child - and when the same teacher, who is also a colleague, tells you "But you're posh".

Posh I am not. But I was well taught, fairly rigorously tested, and instilled with a passion for language that has grown with the years. I cannot say that the similarly good teaching managed to get me beyond the basic competence needed for Higher Maths and Higher Science (remember, if you're older than I am, that that was awarded after a single paper in both Physics and Chemistry; they split the two, if I'm correct, in the early 1960s) - but the MAs who taught me were bright enough to do the biz in Primary and my teachers after S3 had a real uphill struggle against orchestra practices and other distractions.

So: how on earth do you get accepted for teacher training without demonstrating enough ability and education to have room for manoeuvre? And whom does a lack of rigour help? Not the teacher - horrid to find yourself the butt of sneers from a ten-year-old who knows the answer you don't; not the pupils, who have perfectly correctly spelled words marked wrong by the ignoramus charged with their education. No: there are no winners. There don't seem to be teacher shortages either, not right now.

Seems pretty bloody obvious to me.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pitfalls for travelling minstrels ...

Not long after our return from Russia we found ourselves once more hosting a visit to Dunoon from the vocal ensemble Voskresenije from St Petersburg. Having done this annually for several years, the vestry of Holy Trinity decided that it was too difficult to attract a capacity audience every year, and we switched to hosting a concert every two years. Because of new regulations governing the use of buildings for concerts and so on, we were moved by the looless state* of HT and the cost of hiring portaloos to use the Burgh Hall. This itself is very much a work in progress, but is a building well-provided with loos and rooms in which choristers can eat and change, and on this occasion was able to offer a bar at the back of the hall. All seemed set for an interesting evening; the hospitality for the night after the gig was all set up; the posters had been printed. I should have known better.

It has got around that I have been organising Voskresenije's concerts here - and elsewhere, at times - for quite a time. And so it came about that, the evening after our return from Moscow, I had a phone call from the organiser of the concert the night before the choir were due to come here. To cut a long and tortuous story short, he'd had to cancel - and the choir were already on tour. This is catastrophic for them - it amounts to about £1000 out of pocket for them, what with finding alternative accommodation (for that too hadn't materialised) and losing income from a gig. I was appalled, and I was furious. I found myself saying "send them here." I didn't know how my hosts were going to react, and for two days I sat on the news, plucking up the courage to ask them if they could cope.

They coped, magnificently. To a man and a woman they were horrified at the behaviour of the church that had treated "our" Russians so cavalierly. They met the minibus in a dark car-park, were allocated their guests by Jurij (the MD) and set off into the night. It could all have gone so wrong, but despite the odd tremor about a dog or two, it ended up going swimmingly. Or singingly. Laundry was done, singers went for dog-walks in the dark along the shore, my friends Michael and Charlie decided they could speak Russian after downloading Google Translate and finding it worked. The concert was a joyful sell-out, and though HT has a better acoustic and more atmosphere, people on the whole appreciated the convenience(s) and the bar.

As you can see from the photo above, they left in great good humour. That's Jurij between me and Mr B, with a young tenor/counter-tenor and one of the hosts - who memorably opined that we should have them for two nights every time as it gave us time for chat. And despite the fact that I was dying from a cold I felt exhilarated as well as exhausted. What seemed like a mountain to climb had once again become a dawdle.

But there's a moral to this tale. Hosting a choir like this is rewarding in all sorts of ways, and I would commend it to any community (it's usually churches who do it). But if you decide it's something you'd like to happen, you have to make it work. If you're uncertain or unwilling to meet the challenges the organisation can throw up, don't embark on it. That church - about an hour's journey away, on the other side of the Clyde, solid, middle-class - behaved abysmally. I'd hate to think of it ever happening again.

Holy Trinity Dunoon, on the other hand ...

*HT may not remain looless for ever. There are plans afoot - or abottom, if you like.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Do not forget Russia

On a trip such as our Russian one, people become pretty important. Our first night on board we realised at dinner that we were surrounded by Australian voices. Not surprising: APT is an Aussie company. Later we discovered Kiwis, a Dutch/German couple, an Italian couple - and a Scottish couple, she from Millport and he from Glasgow and a former pupil of my uncle more years ago than he cared to recall. All this on a Russian ship in the north of Russia. Amazing. But the people in the first pic were also important. The musicians, in national dress, entertained us every evening, helped the Russian class to sing "Kalinka" and sang "Happy Birthday" to several

guests during the cruise, me included. It turned out that the soprano knew our friend Jurij, who in turn told me that she had toured with Voskresenije. In the same pic you can see the captain (just - on the left), the doctor (who rather alarmingly told one woman who was suffering from an allergy to avoid red foods), two senior officers and the chefs.

The pic on the right shows our guide in St Petersburg - a very interesting and articulate woman who would have engaged the most rebellious class and who made some interesting political and social observations. She was typical of the guides on this trip - a very professional lot.

On the left we are visiting the house of a couple in Svirstroy - a retired midwife (in the stripy jersey) and her retired engineer husband. She told us about life in this small riverside town - growing vegetables, storing them in the basement below the kitchen, clearing snow, making pickles - and I've never seen anyone more serene and apparently content with what seemed a difficult and fairly arduous existence. The lovely girl in the  jeans was one of the onboard interpreters - they were an impressive lot, these language students, and utterly charming.

The girl in 19th century dress on the right was also charming, as Mr B found as a result of serious research - she was one of three guides who showed us round the Governor's House in Yaroslavl, in the personae of the Governor's daughters, and when it came to walzing in the first-floor salon, she asked him to dance with her. Turned out she was a language student on a holiday job, and they chatted away quite the thing while Mr B expired gently with the exertion of doing and old-fashioned walz in a pair of Brasher walking shoes, fleece-line Rohan trousers and a fleece pullover. While open-air Yaroslavl was chilly and windy, the Governor's House was, like every other interior we visited, boiling. All that centrally provided hot water ...

The little girl in the pic below was the person we thought of as "our" on board guide. Julia is Kalmyk, a Buddhist of Mongolian origin,  from one of the primarily Muslim states to the east of the Caspian Sea, and was fluent in
English and French as well as piano playing. She told us that

so many people wouldn't believe that she was Russian, because she didn't look like a Russian, and that she always told them "but I have a Russian soul". Perhaps a Russian soul is what makes the Russians we met such a serious group of people. All of them seemed devoid of flippancy, they seemed dedicated to doing their jobs well and to making us happy, and they seemed immensely well educated. The guide in the picture taken in the Moscow metro (below), holding a blue "lollipop) was the daughter of two doctors, and had a degree from the Moscow State University. Her parents, she said, had given up a great deal to send her there, and she had loved it.

Because the Russian language and the Cyrillic alphabet are so dauntingly unfamiliar, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to stick with other tourists, to avoid even attempting to interact with the people. But when we did get into conversations with our Russian contacts, the two of us loved their seriousness, their culture, their clear-sighted comments. It was from them that we learned that most Russian couples will have only one child; that they all live in flats in the cities; that no-one can get a worthwhile job unless they live in a city; that Russian society is still in a sort of 1950s timewarp.

And when we left, when we said "goodbye" to the people we had met, they all, without exception, said the same thing: "Do not forget Russia."

I don't think I ever will.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

 I suppose this church, St Basil's in Red Square, Moscow, is what I perhaps thought of seeing when I was in Russia. And indeed, when I emerged from the underpass that had taken us safely from the coach  park, I almost couldn't believe I was actually standing in front of such an iconic building. But what I want to explore in this post is the different way I felt about Moscow from my feelings in St Petersburg, where, if I'm honest, I'd already seen as dazzling an onion-domed church, as well as all the others seen on our long sail.

Primarily, I felt disbelief in Moscow. Disbelief that I was actually there, in the place that for all of my life had been synonymous with Soviet rule, used as a symbol for The Other Side in the Cold War, a backdrop for missiles, marching and fur-hatted rulers on Lenin's tomb (left). It seemed hardly credible that we could take photos unhindered, that the guide was talking about where "Our President" worked hard in his nearby office, that I was really in the heart of the Moscow Kremlin and could see the long street which forms the background for foreign news editors on the ten o'clock news on the BBC.

It became apparent to me in Moscow that this was where 'my' history lay, rather than in the more European splendours of St Petersburg. Look at the picture on the right: St Isaac's Cathedral in the heart of St Petersburg is one of the world's largest cathedrals (and is still a museum, as it was in Soviet times). It was designed by Auguste de Montferrand and opened in 1858, and it could be in Paris. The wide square in front of it is flanked by the Astoria hotel, and there are large foreign cars parked at the kerb. It felt like Europe. Peter the Great would have been pleased, but I realised that I was looking for a Russia defined last century.

Actually, Moscow doesn't really work very well right now. The picture on the left was taken from a bus, at teatime. The traffic was already heavy, but fortunately the Northern River Terminal was on the same side of the city centre, which is surrounded by three concentric roads linked by radiating highways like the spokes of a wheel. On our last day, we had to travel back across the city, from Sparrow Hills, and the drive, at snail's pace, took us 90 minutes. We watched as ambulances wormed their way past queuing cars, and noted which siren seemed more effective.  It was hard to imagine doing this daily, and we saw the power of the Metro. But the new Russia means that people want cars, and that desire is paralysing the city.

In contrast, St Petersburg seemed spacious and wide-skied. This could have been attributed to the weather, or to the fact that much of our travelling was done by river. We did see one or two examples of grim "Khruschev" architecture (building styles are designated by the era in which they were built), but far less than in Moscow. Perhaps we were visiting palaces more than housing schemes and universities; there seemed less of the ordinary in the places we saw, and the most mundane was probably the area where we were docked during our stay there.

In Moscow, we caught a glimpse of the Presidential motorcade as it swept over the cobbles of the Kremlin. We travelled on the Metro (train every minute) and made an unscheduled stop in a cafe because of the rain. We visited a beautiful lake by a convent and thought of Tchaikovsky, and we saw the Israeli ambassador laying a wreath at the eternal flame round the corner from Red Square (Rachmaninov this time, and much goose-stepping). We bought chocolate in GUM and saw a rainbow over the city from the amazing Victory Park. We saw a Lenin lookalike street performer in Red Square, and didn't buy a Marshal Zhukov cap from a street stall. I had loved my time in St Petersburg, but in Moscow I felt I had arrived in a bit of history I knew. The final photo shows the decrepit Northern River Terminal building - fenced off, riddled with concrete cancer, but still illuminated every night. It was directly opposite our balcony. It had a revolving red star on the top of it. It was Russia.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Falling for Mother Russia

 The holiday I've just taken in Russia began and ended in cities. We joined a river cruise in St Petersburg, spent three sunny days there, and six days later we arrived in Moscow. And these were wonderful places, and deserve a blog post to themselves. But when I think of this journey - because it felt more journey than holiday - it is a scene such as the one above that plays on the screen in my head. This was the very first place we stopped at after sailing all night from St Petersburg up the Neva river for 150 miles: Svirstroy. Every cruise that goes along these waterways stops here, it seems, but apart from a small enclosure of wooden stalls selling crafts and traditional goods, the village - population c.1,000 - seems utterly isolated. It began to rain as we went ashore, and the golden leaves lay everywhere on the muddy roads. The people selling their goods were quiet and it made me embarrassed to be a tourist - the very fact of our being there meant we were rich. But we passed so many of these small settlements of wooden houses, with their hens (firmly fenced in because of wolves in the forest) and their vegetable gardens, the produce from which was being stored in cellars before the winter, that they seem to have become "Russia" in my mind.

Of course, there were special sites to visit. Kizhi Island, on the vast Onega Lake, is a World Heritage Site in Russian Karelia of wooden churches, chapels and houses rebuilt there to preserve them. The church in the photo - the 22-dome Church of the Transfiguation - dates from 1714, and you can read more about it here. We walked along gravel paths in wonderfully clear air, the sound of bells - deep from the church, tinkling and musical from a distant chapel - constantly in our ears. I wanted to stay.
We visited more churches than I've ever seen on a holiday. I learned that the word that has become synonymous with Soviet rule - Kremlin - is in fact the term used for the central fortified area in any town, often centred on a monastic foundation. So in a little town called Uglich, I was amused to hear our guide say nonchalantly that the Kremlin walls, being wooden, had disintegrated and the local authorities had decided not to rebuild them. There were a few monks living in the monastery in the upper pic, at Kirilov, but most of the buildings are now museums of various kinds, fascinating in other ways. And yet the people - or the state - are rebuilding churches from scratch - the cathedral in Yaroslavl, on the left, is new - they are still finishing the decorative tiling on the exterior. It was extraordinary to see this.

 Kirilov was some distance from the port we landed at - Goritsi, on the Volga-Baltic waterway south of Lake Onega. It was becoming colder, and the sky was grey, the sun was grey - even the trees had fewer leaves. The picture on the right is  shot from our coach back to the boat - I wanted to show the kind of houses in the village, with their tin roofs and vegetable plots. There was little sign of life there - it seemed that all the locals had gone to the port to sell hats and linen shirts to the visitors. A dog tried to follow us onto the ship.
By the time we reached Uglich (left) we knew this carefree time of slipping through the countryside was nearing an end. The demands of the city and the long days of sightseeing would be upon us again. No more vodka-tasting (4 glasses of different vodkas in an hour), doll-painting or Russian lessons; no more swooping ashore for a few hours to dance walzes in the Governor's House in Yaroslavl, whereMr B was favoured with a dance with a beautiful Russian girl in 19th century dress and nearly died of heat in his winter togs. Soon we would be negotiating terrifying road-crossings, epic traffic jams and unfamiliar street-signs again, and then we would have to pass the nerve-racking scrutiny of the border guards at the airport and hope that our visa was still valid. We were cruise virgins in a vast land in a ship full - or as near as dammit - of Australian tourists, but guided by a dashing Russian captain with a saturnine smile. I loved it. There are hundreds more photos going up on my Flickr stream that may do more justice than these words.

When we said goodbye to people who had looked after us - the lecturer on Russian history, the lovely deputy cruise director - they said "Do not forget our country". We had been given the bread and salt on our arrival on board, and when we came ashore at Uglich. Perhaps that helped to cement us to the land. Whatever happened, there is a part of me still gliding through the dark water, with the golden woods of Mother Russia slipping past on either side.

*I've been defeated, in the end, in my attempt to lay this post out pleasingly. Too many photos, I reckon.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Big weans: Avignon Fahrt, part 3.

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Sometimes - often, in fact, our Avignon trip made me feel like a teenager. A young teen - say 15, or as I was at 15 - and I felt I was in the right company. Two incidents might illustrate this, quite aside from the ongoing lightheartedness that comes from submitting all to the care of The Person In Charge, a carefree approach that I remember fondly as I prepare for a more adult, responsible trip.

The first took place in the Fondation Vasarely, where a couple of guides took our divided group through a series of cube-shaped exhibition halls and attempted to explain what the artist had in mind. I think. Our group had the less able guide; it was a warm afternoon; we had eaten lunch and not been able to find coffee; the couches were comfortable. I found myself wondering how I would help this guide to made her presentation engaging. It would have helped if she'd done her homework, I suspect, as she read, laboriously, from a pamphlet. She may even have been doing simultaneous translation: clever, but not calculated to hold the wandering attention. And in the end, wandering happened. We wandered off, drifting past one screen into another space, peeping round corners, finding the stairs to the upper gallery. The photo shows our guide, in her red dress, sloping off. She might have been mopping a tear, but I suspect she was on the phone, seeking transport, rescue from the philistines - something like that.

The other event was spontaneous, crazy and fun. There is a carousel in the middle of the Place de l'Horloge in Avignon, just down the road from our hotel. It is an old-fashioned, two-tier roundabout, with traditional horses and other carriages. One evening, as the horde - there were 48 of us - headed out for dinner, the carousel stood waiting, empty - and probably about to shut up shop for the night. And suddenly we were all leaping aboard. I got a horse - I loved the horses as a kid. We didn't think about paying - The Leader would take care of that. Round and round we went, up and down, laughing like zanies. We could see people stopping, taking photos - you can make out a man in a cafe doing just that on the right of the photo. The music struck up, and suddenly we were all singing "I'm getting married in the morning". At the top of our voices. The crowd grew. Someone remarked to The Leader - for he was not aboard - that it was wonderful to see old people enjoying themselves so much. We must have looked utterly absurd - the youngest was probably 60 - but we didn't care.

The music stopped, we clambered - stiffly - down. People applauded, and we went on our way. Big weans, all of us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Of bulls, flamingoes and rice

A feature of our recent trip to France was the journeys we made around the area - we had a bus and driver at our command throughout (the driver looked to be about 12 years old). On the Sunday we went south, to Arles, arriving mid-morning. All we knew about the day was that we'd had to change our eating arrangements: a restaurant where we were booked for lunch had been obdurately and mysteriously closed after the booking had been made. When we  arrived, it looked as if Arles had also been closed, and the bus dropped us off at the end of a blocked-off street. The barriers were over head height, and wired together - you can make them out in the photo on the left. Apparently we had arrived on the Feria du Riz and had no idea of what might happen. We set off on our walking tour, accompanied by an excellent American guide. (Oh, the joy of a good guide, and oh, the tedium of a poor one). We were delighted by the garden of the hospital where Van Gogh was taken minus his ear, and by being able to snap the cafe he famously painted at night and see that it was much the same even if the street wasn't. And we loved the way the Roman remains were somehow mingled with buildings still in use, so that the whole effect was somehow casual and random.

We arrived at lunchtime. We'd already seen the huge vats of paella being cooked on ever corner, and the backstreet cafés were tempting, but we had a notion to be close to the action. Having heard the wild roars from the Roman Amphitheatre, we had a taste for the excitement of the promised bull run; we wanted to see what was happening. We sat at a table beside the barricaded road. Bands played, vying with one another. Lines of horsemen - and women - paraded up and down the road with what looked like spears (they weren't). They wore the kind of hats that made them look special, and sat with their legs straight in long stirrups. They were Camargue cowboys, and they looked invincible. We waited for paella and action. A gun went off. There was a distant roar, and then the clattering of hooves on tarmac. By this time I was peering through the barrier, just in time to see a swirl of horses, dust, and - fleetingly - the small, black bulls corralled in the centre of the horses. This was how it worked, then: they had to keep the bulls under control as they all pelted along. Just where I was standing, a bull escaped, turned round, started back the way it had come. Great horsemanship, more swirling, and it was back in the equine corral. Youths dashed after them, trying to catch the tail of a bull. Later - for they did it about 10 times - young boys joined in and with the reduction in speed were able to catch up, wrestle the bull's horns. One of our party, wine-glass in hand, chased after them too. She spilled not a drop. I thought fleetingly of health and safety. I also thought more about how exciting I'd found it - I'd thought I might be crippled by disapproval. I even wrote a poem about it, which you can see, along with a great photo by a friend, here.

The afternoon saw us wandering the paths of a bird sanctuary in the Camargue. It couldn't have been more of a contrast. There were flamingoes, egrets and mosquitoes - though we only became aware of these the next day, when we realised that we hadn't spread the repellent under sleeves. One even bit me through my t-shirt. It was hot, and the tall grasses rustled in a gentle breeze. I loved it. And I loved the restaurant in which we ate the meal we hadn't had in the Camargue. La Cuisine de Dimanche in Avignon has inspired me now I'm home and cooking again - you can read what I wrote about it on Trip Advisor.

And now I feel I've written enough for now. I may have to share what happened with a Carousel, and in a modern art gallery. But I have another trip to prepare for ...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Avignon Fahrt: episode 1

Pont St Bénezet
Before last week, I think I knew two things about Avignon. There was a bridge, and there had been popes there. You can read about the popes here - suffice it to say that they were on the whole French, or rather Occitane, and they preferred not to leave France - and as for the bridge, the photo shows how it is now only half a bridge. You can read why here; its other name is the Pont St Bénezet. And that's all I've got to say about that, because the trip I've just been on had so much more about it than simple history.

Bedroom, Hotel Palais des Papes
I was on a Fahrt - in this case, a group of 48 or so people who all knew most of the others, either from past trips or through mutual friends. For me this had the effect of rendering me child-like: instead of feeling any responsibility for anything, I simply went with the flow and trusted our leader to make it all work. And it did. We were only there for five nights, but we saw and did so much that it both passed in a flash and felt like a longer visit. Avignon itself was lovely, and the hotel - not the first choice: we were apparently gazumped by a German group - an inspired location for such a group. Picture it: right next to the palace of the popes, with another square, the Place de l'Horloge to the front, in an old stone building with narrow corridors, a spiral staircase and stone walls left as a feature in the bedrooms, filled completely with Fahrters. (This last feature was just as well - any normal person finding themselves there with us might have been less than happy). Our room had a view of an internal courtyard and our friends' bedroom windows; we were happy because it was silent and we had air-con and felt no need to open the window at all. The beds were four-posters minus the drapes - we hung our hats on the posts - and we had two doubles, for some reason.

The faces of the staff (behind) reflect apprehension
The food in the hotel dining room was just great - though I feared for the effects of the multiple chocolate puddings on the first night. The low point came on the Monday morning; we didn't have an early start, which may have encouraged the management to set our petit déjeuner outside on the terrasse. It was a lovely warm, still morning; the town was coming to life around us; the tour-groups would soon begin to pass and be beguiled by the sight of these jolly, friendly people chatting away at the little tables - surely this must be a charming place to be, they would doubtless think - and all seemed wonderful. And then the lorry turned up. Think Dyno-rods. Two men stuck a clear (my god) plastic hosepipe into a drain and turned on the suction. We tried not to look, but soon the stink of diesel was joined by another smell and our leader went to remonstrate. Big gallic shrug - was this specially for our benefit? The sewer must be cleared or .... This is where the benefit of Farhting became apparent. (No pun intended, but have it if you will). We laughed. Hysterically. It was then that a second lorry hove to, slightly to one side, and a man leapt out and began hosing down the street and watering plant pots. He too had an engine running. And then the third lorry arrived: the street sweeper. It swept slowly past. It was bedlam.

By the time it was quiet again, a last flock of oriental tourists was treated to the spectacle of the late breakfasters sitting with scarlet faces, tears running down their cheeks. Peaceful it was not - but we'll not forget Avignon in a hurry.

This post has gone on long enough. I'll return to some of our days out another time. À la prochaine ...

Monday, August 27, 2012

A child's-eye Eucharist

I had an interesting experience at church yesterday - a first, I'd say, in 34 years. Instead of sitting in the front pew where I can hiss at the organist if he falls asleep, I was in the social area at the rear with an assortment of children. Two of them were with me; I'd taken the chance to have my granddaughters with me all morning and so was responsible for the smallest child present (Anna is 20 months old). As the older children actually do creative things during the service, I watched the tiny and joined in the singing in a faintly distracted fashion - and in a way, apart from greeting a different bunch of people at the Peace and going up to read because it was my turn, that was it.

Oh, I received the Sacrament, and it was lovely to have the weans blessed - but in fact I felt like a different person. Instead of being aware of every word, every nuance, every move in the Eucharist, I could hear practically nothing of what was said. My concentration was entirely taken up with the area around me and the small people in it, and if you asked me what the sermon was about I'd be hard pushed to tell you.Even the singing sounded a bit distant, and when I joined in I think I startled the children around me. What seemed important to me was that they were there, that they were happy, and that people seemed happy to see them. My two obviously felt relaxed and safe, and neither of them seemed inclined to make loud noises - not even Anna, who modulated her questions ("What's that?") to a suitable sotto voce. Catriona, the elder, who has just started school, was so engrossed in her colouring-in activity that she was still at it as the congregation came down to join them at coffee time; her only regret was that she couldn't dance in the aisle as her granddad played the organ.

So ...? So I think that the ministry exercised by those who work at the church experience for children is an amazing piece of giving - giving not only to the weans but also to the rest of the congregation, who are able to feel the joy of having children in church without the stress of wondering what they'll do next. So I think that if there is a facility like this in church, this is where parents of a young child should take that child rather than struggle with it in the pews where the battle distracts everyone around them. So I am really happy that this happens in my church, but equally happy that I personally don't have to do it every week.

For make no mistake: this is giving, self-giving with a vengeance.  And I thank God for it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A trip worth making

I've been doing a bit of gadding this week. Two visits in three days to the Edinburgh Festival leaves this west coast resident a tad shattered, but before the madness of Cowal Games takes over (we usually escape, but that's another story) I felt the need to mention the concerts we attended. They were teatime affairs, an hour or so in the Kirk of the Greyfriars leaving the city-dwellers time to get to another concert and the migrants to catch the last ferry home. One was chosen on the basis of my preferences, the other for Mr B. The first was the wonderful Ricercar Consort performing Purcell and Blow, with the most stunning countertenor singing I've heard from Robin Blaze and Carlos Mena. I think I had a silly grin on my face for most of the hour, and the packed audience erupted in applause and foot-stamping at the end.

I was less sure I would enjoy the next concert, the world premiere of James MacMillan's Since it was the day of Preparation, performed by the Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy Vocals, but I need not have worried. You can find out about the piece itself through the video link above, but I'm interested right now in my own reaction to it. For a start, I wondered how much it mattered to me that not only the story but also the actual words were so familiar to me - and not just familiar, but important. John's Gospel account of the burial and resurrection of Christ triggers a movie in my head, one that ran gratefully with the music as accompaniment - would a piece based on Hindu scriptures have had the same impact? Throughout, I enjoyed the plainsong-like line of the narration - and then, during the final of several instrumental meditations, I was electrified to realise that the solo horn was playing fragments of the Exultet - this in a prolonged conclusion to the story that ends with the words "were every one of (the other things that Jesus did) to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." The horn music kept disintegrating into incoherent burblings, even into barely audible puffs of air over the mouthpiece, so for someone who has sung the Exultet several times these phrases threw up an interesting train of thought - something along the lines that the Resurrection is a mystery that defies definition, but that nevertheless produces exultation.

The performance was wonderful. The singing was flawless, the instrumental music likewise. I loved the handbells (tapped, not rung, for the most part) as Christus sang, and the staging that had the tenor open the piece from halfway down the church. I'd have to hear it again to know how far it works for me as a purely musical experience - would I even hear the horn sighing, or the pianissimo cello, or would I wonder if something had gone wrong? - but I joined with everyone else in that (again) packed audience in rapturous applause at the end.

It had been worth the effort - even if we did have to wait 45 minutes for the last ferry.

Friday, August 17, 2012

This fasting caper ...

I wonder how many who are reading this saw the fascinating programme about fasting and ageing on the telly? I recorded it - presumably during the Olympics - and got round to watching it last night. Beginning with the aged (as in 101 years old) Sikh gentleman who completed the London marathon, who ate only child-sized portions of food and was very thin,  we were gradually convinced that it we were to cut out food altogether for 80 hours or so, or perhaps have two days a week with only one 500 calorie meal in each day - eating what we liked the rest of the week - we would lose weight, lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar: in short, we would become physically younger and fitter and less likely to fall ill.

Of course we know we in the West eat far too much. Apparently our bodies were built to expect lean times - perhaps we weren't fast enough to catch up with dinner for a couple of days - and malfunction if these days of forced fasting don't happen.  I was so convinced I was tempted to try the 500 calorie days idea - until I went through a day with it in mind.

Today I swam half a mile before breakfast, which I then felt hungry for and consequently enjoyed enormously. I worked with my brain through a three-hour meeting, ate some brown bread straight out of the machine along with 4 dates and a banana, then pounded up a steep forestry track for half an hour and down again, hurrying because I wanted to be at church in time. And then I cooked the above delicious dinner (salmon, spiced lentils, mint yogurt dressing, salad, glass of white wine) and wondered how I'd do this fasting caper.

I guess one has to find out if intense physical activity is possible while fasting, and to plan what mealtime you'd choose for your one meal of the day. I suspect mine would be the evening meal, simply because of the social conditioning that makes it a ritual pleasure.

How about you? Anyone?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Of broom pods, technology, and speed

After a week of glorious sunshine and pleasing photos, why do I post this pic of black broom pods? Ok - it's because it suits my mood at the moment. The bush in question is in Ardentinny, on one of my favourite paths through the fields by the shore, leading to the beach. Today, there was a notice warning that the brambles (not yet ripe) should not be picked because chemical spraying was in progress. The path was lined with the dead remains of plants that had, admittedly, been encroaching on the narrow track, but surely they could have used a strimmer? It looked so miserable ...

And then we passed the sign that says "No Camping. No fires." We came to the beach. I expected people - it's Saturday, and the weather all week has been glorious. But there were tents - at least half a dozen of them - and at least two fires, and noisy groups already getting wellied into the sauce. A north-east wind was blowing, the clouds were hanging on the hills just thickly enough to dim the sunshine that I knew was shining hotly in my own garden. It was depressing and horrid and we came straight home again. Black broom pods ruled.

And then one of these delightful technology moments came just in time to lift my mood. I had a video chat with Jurij, a musician in St Petersburg - someone I've known for ten years or so, but have never Skyped until today. The ability to see someone while you talk to them makes communication so much more effective than either emails or voice chat - if you can speak a bit of a foreign language, ask yourself how well you write it - and we were able to clear up some difficulties in arranging a concert in Dunoon (Jurij directs Voskresenije, the vocal ensemble who will soon be back touring the UK) with great good humour.

That, and Mo Farah's Olympic triumph, banished the black pod mood. On the other hand, the two events meant that a blog post begun 5 hours ago is now being finished at midnight. And I'm aware it's a tad scrappy. But at least I'm not mad any more. Let not the sun go down on your black pod moments ...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I and me and chord sequences

Oh bother. I'm feeling a grump coming on. Having spent longer than is sensible reading old green Penguins - see past entries - I buy a couple of books at the church coffee morning. One, the first Simon Serrailler thriller by Susan Hill, I enjoy immensely and am glad to discover there are many more - though a chance conversation with a pal who has most of them leads me to guess at the dénouement earlier than I would have liked (deduction based, if you're old enough to recall it, on memories of the TV series The Virginian).

There is, however, one fly in that particular ointment - a solitary grammatical howler that stabs me to the heart in the middle of such a well-written book. As it's about two-thirds of the way through, I find I'm slightly on edge for the rest of it. Will it happen again? But it doesn't, and I'm glad.

And now I'm onto an American murder story - just started it. The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle. Follow the link and read the reviews - sounds good, eh? Set in Florence, interesting perspective on a murderous attack near the beginning - all very promising. And then the glaring errors slip in, one after another. "I" instead of "me" - that sort of thing. I don't know if I can go on reading it, for I suddenly find myself becoming critical of descriptions, names (Kirk. I ask you...), vocabulary. I develop a sudden loathing for the word "gotten".

I used to get irritated when Mr B didn't like some piece of music because of some poor chord progression or somesuch (many a modern hymn suffers from this). But I shall not be irritated again. Not by that, anyway. Because I am just as bad, and right now I'm sufficiently irritated at myself, let alone at writers who should know better or composers who didn't do enough harmony at school.

As I said: bother.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Peirles Paramour...A journey into our past

Fragment from text of document 
I've been singing again. Back to where, in a way, it all began - and the time when the text on the left was at once wondrously strange and increasingly familiar. If you sat Higher Music in Scotland in 1964, it may well seem familiar to you too - for that year one of our set works for study was a group of pieces from Musica Britannica Vol XV - Music of Scotland 1500-1700, edited by Kenneth Elliott. I have a clear memory of standing round the piano in the Music Room (Room 16) of Hillhead High School with a group of friends, singing our way through this particular song as best we could, the sight-reading of music and language taxing our brains and leading to much hilarity - before we started again, determined to get it right.

After I left school I met Kenneth Elliott at Glasgow University, not because I studied music (though I did, for one year, to make up the so-called "science" subject in an Arts degree) but because I sang with a small group who actually performed this music he'd spent so much work on. We were invited to his house for evenings of singing and wine; we stiffened the ranks of various University choirs as they struggled to meet his demands. I've been singing it, on and off, ever since.

And this is why, a couple of days ago, I found myself singing this music of a Scotland that few really know about - singing it with the St Maura Singers, the quartet that has been a thread through my life since the late 60s, rehearsing for a memorial concert for Kenneth Elliott which will take place in the original home of the St Mauras, The Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. We're doing a whole programme of this music, almost all of it for four voices, and one of the pieces is Support Your Servand - which in fact we've never performed. I was eighteen again, suddenly - and it was as if we were seeing it for the first time.

Read the words again. Read them aloud. How are you pronouncing them? How, gentle reader, will we pronounce them? This is a discussion we have every time we perform any of these pieces. Are the "oi" sounds as in "hoy!" or simply the modern "sore"? And we listen to recorded performances - much lauded - in which the accent is so ... Scottish? ancient? ... as to be incomprehensible, and we wonder if anyone in the audience will have a clue. And then we found what Kenneth himself had to say about it, and it was wonderful.
I would once again urge singers to pronounce the Scots texts as naturally as possible, without recourse to the extremes of local dialect: these text are related to the courtly tradition of Scots poetry, written by sophisticated Scots of burgh, song- or Grammar-school and university, in touch with, if not even part of castle and, ultimately, court culture, rather than the rustic precursors of bothy balladeers, kailyard confectioners or Doric dropouts.

I can hear Kenneth's voice here - and a degree of exasperation (I would once again urge..) Obviously he's had this conversation before. So we will not roll our 'r's more than normally, nor will we sound like The Corries on a culture trip. The music - in all its complexity or its deceptive simplicity - will speak as well as we can achieve. And despite all the people who have sung it since, we will know that we were there very early on in the performing of it.

And somewhere, I think Kenneth will be smiling.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Journey begins in bloggers meeting

People who don't know about blogging still - after all these years - sneer at the idea. I'd rather meet people and have real conversations, they say. What they don't understand, of course, is how much more real your conversations can be with someone whose blog you follow - making it possible to meet someone you've met for only five minutes on one previous occasion and know where they are in life, what interests them, whether or not they might enjoy a bacon roll on Largs seafront ... You get my drift.

And so it was, dear, persistent reader, that Mr B and I had lunch with a certain weel-kent blogger known as Mad Priest, along with Mrs MP and two well-behaved collie dogs, at a pavement table outside Nardini at the Moorings, handy for the Cumbrae ferry - of which more anon. I am happy to report that we blethered non-stop for over an hour and a half, ranging through various ecclesiastical topics (liturgy, for example) to the merely gossipy (you can guess that bit, especially if you're a Pisky). We were heading on to Ayr for a party, and the MPs were - on my recommendation - taking the ferry to Cumbrae.

It's always a risky business, commending something you hold dear to someone else. This holds for poetry - oh, the risk of exposing your favourites to a new class of students - for music, and certainly for special places. People who know me know how special the Cathedral of The Isles has been to me for the past 43 years; now I was sending two people there without me, in the hope that they too would find it special. So it was with immense delight that I read Jonathan's blog post this morning. Quite apart from the relief, there is the interest of a new slant on a familiar place, the lovely photos taken by someone else of features I have grown to love, the affirmation that here indeed is a special, holy place.

And I even learned something new. About Elton John. Go and read it for yourself.