Sunday, February 26, 2012

Importunate Witnesses

I invite you to share a few moments of my Saturday morning. It won't take long...

I am sitting in the study, working on various bits and pieces for the church, when the doorbell rings downstairs.
"That'll be my new phone!"
The childish excitement lasts only as far as the hall. There are two figures on the doorstep, one of whom has begun to pound the glass panel vigorously. I open the inner door, and then the storm door.
"Give me a chance - I was upstairs ..."
But a horrid recognition is dawning. The woman - about my age - who was pounding the door smiles. "You know me!"she proclaims triumphantly. And alas, I know her - or at least I know who she is. The man behind her, bulky, big leather jacket, stubbly head, is a stranger. There is a moment when I think they are trying to effect an entrance into my porch, but I hold the door firmly, lean out towards them.  A few words of small talk ... "How are you? How's retirement?" (The connection had links with the school, though not recently).
"I'm very busy. With church, you know."

That does it. "What do you think of Armageddon?"
I go for the light touch. "I try not to, much ..."

But they're off. Regardless of the fact that this woman (a) knows exactly who I am, (b) knows that I have a long-standing commitment to the Episcopal Church and (c) has been this way before, she pitches in as if I was somehow virgin ground, ripe for takeover. The man is worse - he very soon becomes aggressive, and actually has to be shushed by the woman. When they see that I don't intend to rise to their questions, she produces a pamphlet.
"Will you read this? It won't take long..." and the man adds "Surely you have an open mind?"

Now, I have been through all this stuff in the past. I thought that we'd been clocked as unlikely converts long ago. I was aware by this time of the rising bile, the wish to be clearer than politeness was letting me. In a small town, you don't really like to let rip at someone whose family you know; it's not like the city where you can - as my nephew advocates - merely shake your head at them and shut the door. But I've had enough. They haven't brought my new phone, and they've begun to tell me about the Bible.
"I'm afraid I think you believe some very odd things," I say, firmly. "And I'm not interested in learning any more about them."

And they go. But I suddenly see how awful this doorstepping actually is. I used to wonder if we should all do this sort of thing - if this wasn't perhaps a laudable exercise. But now I see it as calculated to put people off at best, to give them a complete scunner - for that's what this visitation did to me. If we can't live in such a way as to make it clear that there is an extra dimension in our lives, then I reckon we should give up. Or try harder. And I don't think we should presume to tell people they've got it all wrong.

Unless they're on the doorstep, that is.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Restoration, in more ways than one.

I've recently discovered Rose Tremain - I'm still in that lovely place when you realise that someone whose writing you enjoy has written loads of novels, all waiting out there for another foray - and I thought until a moment ago that I had reviewed The Road Home, which I read in the autumn. This is an entirely modern story, the story of an economic migrant from Eastern Europe whose experience of London gives a new perspective that I - mere country bumpkin that I have become - found not unfamiliar. I triumphed and suffered with Lev, and was eager to repeat the experience.

Restoration was an entirely different experience, except as regards the skill of the writer. Where I had felt sympathy for the Lev, the economic migrant, I began with nothing but distaste for the physically unattractive, bumptious, facetious Merivel, whose infatuation with King Charles II and irrepressible appetite for food, colour and sex seemed to make him a typically Restoration figure. But as I persisted with his story, Merivel's journey towards his own restoration took hold, and the book had won.

Merivel tells his own story, speaking as it were directly and self-consciously to the reader, and Tremain's language throughout is such that I could believe in the historicity of the characters - if there were anachronisms and anomalies I wasn't aware of them. The life of the Restoration period comes alive in all its colour and contradictions, and left me feeling once again how lucky I am to live now. Merivel's original calling is that of physician. As such he is aware of the dreadful variety of ailments that can carry people off, the threat of plague, the fragility of life. The cures he has access to are horrific, and as for childbirth ...

The Restoration of the title is historical, personal and metaphorical. It's a great book. I'm looking forward to the other title I got for Christmas, but I shall save it for a bit. Joy.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How the other half lives with liturgy ...

Last week I spent some time in interestingly erudite company thinking about Liturgy. I tend to feel, on these occasions, like the class idiot - the one who asks the questions no-one else does - but in fact this time I felt I had prepared rather more than usual by reading up on the background and rationale behind our 1982 liturgy, and I realise now that as a result of the two days of meetings I'm still thinking about what we do .

I can't begin to plunge into the detail, but things that stuck include:
The perils of over-specificity even in poetic images in liturgy.
The fact that clergy tend to have a different view on the above from laity simply because they repeat it with greater frequency.
The 1970 consecration prayer is much improved by removing some of the parenthesis and repetition of ideas and the archaic pronouns and verb forms.
I found myself objecting less vigorously than has become my wont when we used the 1970 liturgy on Sunday.
I enjoy the company of academics, while recognising how studiousness has never been my forte.
I don't want to sit any more exams, even to become officially a Lay Reader.
"And also with you" is as weak a response as it always seemed to be.
It's usually clergy who insist that a Service of The Word is an acceptable substitute for a Sunday communion service - usually when the Reserved Sacrament is involved - bearing in mind that this is a service they need never attend if they don't want to.
Once you start worrying about gender bias in liturgy you realise how useful the word "God" is. But "man" is still a no-no, whatever men say about mankind...

I'd better stop. But it's always fascinating to step out of my own worship zone and realise what other Episcopalians take - or do not take - for granted. Andrew's recent post touches on that, interestingly. It's hard work being part of a huge, sparsely-populated - let alone priested - diocese. But every time I step out of it I'm reinforced in one central idea.

 I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Carver, Tallis and ghosts

We don't go to concerts often these days - we're as likely to be performing as listening, to be honest, and the late-night return, involving as it tends to an hour's wait for the last ferry or the long drive over the Rest, puts us off, rather, especially in winter. But on Saturday we made an exception, and the resulting evening was one that we both considered well worth the trail. It also achieved an interesting bringing-together of various elements in my life, and I hope to be able to convey something of this.

The concert was in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries, and I found out about it on Facebook and booked it online. In that simple sentence you have the beginning and end of a loop: I spent many a wet winter Saturday afternoon in childhood looking at the animals and the armour in the Art Galleries, now a very different place: to my recall the animal displays were all round where we sat as an audience, forming a sort of ghostly backdrop.  And to get there we drove through Broomhill and Hyndland and over Gilmorehill. I found myself wishing I still had my parents living in Broomhill, remembering Hyndland for both my early childhood and the excitement of buying the tiny flat we lived in when we were first married, thinking of the strange thrill of being around the university on winter evenings, whether for pleasure or - occasionally - study. I reflected on how carelessly the young me had felt ownership of that whole area, without thought or fear, how I had walked the dark streets alone and heedless.

But the concert - ah, the concert. The Tallis Scholars were singing "our" music - Tallis, Allegri, Byrd, the incomparable Robert Carver. They sang it perfectly - the best choral singing we'd ever heard live. Of course we knew their excellence - we have several recordings, and that's why we went - but the live performance overwhelmed me with its wonderful creamy sound, the perfect intonation, the flawless phrasing, the ebb and flow and the heart-stopping wall of sound of the word "Jesus" when it came, over and over, throughout Carver's motet O Bone Jesu. For Allegri's Miserere, there was a group of singers - the ones whose part includes the magic high treble notes - somewhere in a gallery above us and to the left, so that when they sang I was suddenly aware of the vast emptiness of the rest of the building, lurking art-filled and ghostly while some thousand people gathered at its heart. So there we sat, packed, still and silent, raptly caught up in something beyond the human in the unforgettable shared experience that we would, in the end, all describe differently.

More memories, more ghosts. We too sang in the Art Galleries once, when we sang with The New Consort of Voices in the late 60s and early 70s. It was hard to get an audience for Byrd and Palestrina in those days, and the few people who listened did so as they drifted about the space during an afternoon organ/vocal recital. We tried to sing in the way that the Tallis Scholars do now, we sang the same music (from the same edition of Byrd, I noticed), and no-one took any notice except for Kenneth Elliott. We even sang Carver, so I feel I know the music from within. I don't get singing like that so often now, for we don't have enough contact with others who can do it - and it annoys me to think that I sing better now in what must be my vocal twilight than I did when I was young.

We fortified our bodies with a delightful early meal in Konaki. The whole evening was a delight. And I have to thank the very current medium of Facebook for unlocking it all.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wrestling with Swedish hornets

I managed, for reasons associated with where I live, not to see the film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though I wish I had and still hope to. But at Christmas, I was given the book on the left. "You like detective stories, yes?" said Ewan. And yes, I do - right back to when I began with Edmund Crispin. So I began on my Christmas books with this one, thinking "fat book, get it read before I go on holiday". But I'd reckoned - as, I imagine, had Ewan - without the travails induced by reading the third book of a trilogy in which all the characters have appeared from the start - or so I imagine - and have, furthermore, Swedish names that stubbornly resist internal pronunciation and therefore memory.

That said, I ended up thoroughly enjoying The Girl who kicked the Hornets' Nest.  Perhaps there was an element of triumph in my enjoyment, but it meant that I ended up lugging the two-thirds finished tome all the way to Dubai in my cabin bag so that I could read it on the long flight.

Apart from the intricately worked-out plot that had me thumbing backwards to find out where the clues were laid (and to check out which Swedish name belonged to which plot element) I found myself revelling in the hacking that formed the backbone of the latter part of the story. (How sad is that?) I regretted my inadequate knowledge of Swedish geography and the lack of a map at the front of this book, and I marvelled at what Swedes seem to eat for breakfast. It was such an engrossing experience that I found myself bereft beneath the palm trees when I finished it in a late afternoon after a swim, and it was hard to start on another book - which I may also review - that evening.

Several people have offered to lend me the other two books - I shall be ready to start one in about a fortnight, the way my life is looking right now. And I want to see the movie ...

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The tax man, the musician and the poet: a cautionary tale.

It couldn't last. All that laid-back, chilled cheerfulness induced by some out-of-season sun and warmth had to be dissipated, didn't it? So for pricking the bubble - in fact, for the prick of the year award - I nominate the tax-man. I suppose he mightn't like it if I named him, the almost-anonymous jobsworth who signed the letter to Mr B with a diagonal dash that bore no resemblance to the name typed beneath, and I actually don't know the gender as there is only an initial, but here's to you, AD, for raising a rant.

For a start, the letter dated 7 February comes in response to a written query dated 25 November which arrived in the tax offices on 28 November. Nothing unusual there - the workings of HMRC are glacial. The joyful tidings can be summarised in the opening of the second paragraph: I can confirm that you are still due to pay the amount as shown on the tax calculation that we sent you. They go on: You are obliged to obtain and retain all original documentary evidence of all allowances, reliefs, income, pay and tax, even if you are not required to complete a Tax Return, to allow you to check your liability and to allow you to inform HMRC of any income which has not been fully taxed. 

I hope you're paying attention. I hope you're doing this - are you?

The letter goes on, in impenetrable jargon, to tell him that he was issued a notice of coding blah blah for the year 2009-10 in January 2009. It's the following sentence that seems particularly impenetrable "HMRC have checked with your pension provider, SPPA Finance and HMRC agree that no error was made for which action can be taken." Quite apart from the weak punctuation that arouses doubt as to what the writer is actually saying, it looks to this non-accounting mind as if what they are saying is "We made a boob; your pension provider took it as being correct; it's not their (SSPA's) fault - because "they acted with reasonable care, based on the information they held at the time." The letter goes on: "You were notified of this decision on 2 November 2011 and that decision stands. I reiterate that your pension provider is not to be held accountable for the liability notified because it is your liability and remains due ..."

The letter goes on to make it clear that all these codes with which HMRC issue us have intrinsic meanings and that it's our duty to understand these and check them. "It is your responsibility to check (these) and to check your liability and you would then have had knowledge of any errors occurring and then would have been able to inform HMRC." Eh? Let's clarify the actual situation here. We have someone who has not filled in a tax return since PAYE was introduced, someone whose salary was publicly known and who never worked in a private capacity to earn extra money, someone who, furthermore, has been retired and in receipt of the same pension for the past seven years - and suddenly HMRC decide to send him a new tax code and get it wrong and it's his responsibility to check it? What precisely are these tax people paid to do?

The nastiest paragraph states "... you were fully aware that your tax affairs were not in order (as you have stated that you know that the incorrect PAYE tax code was being operated when compared against the notice of coding P2 dated 16 January 2009, yet you did not act to try to correct the issue. The evidence you have sent confirms that you were aware, (sic) of the situation, (sic) but did not act." Seeing that a different coding has been applied and automatically knowing that it's a mistake are two different things, surely?

Given that figures and taxation are part of a foreign country into which I have recently had to travel because of consultancy work, I know that these people blunder - but had they not done so quite so blatantly at the end of last year when they sent me two different codings within a week and then took a chunk off my pension as a result, I would not have assumed this. (I did not, by the way, ever recoup any money lost in the month when I was waiting for the repayment of this chunk).

Seems to me that the operatives at HMRC get things wrong rather too often for comfort and then send out these missives of hectoring and patronising jargon which threaten rather than apologise and assure us that they will take the money and there's not a thing we can do to stop them. We are expected to have a grasp of their arcane procedures, be we musicians or poets - even though their letters are so badly written that they could well do with the blethers' course in Plain English. Do the rest of us get off with blunders on such a regular and harmful fashion? Doctors, maybe? Dentists? (ouch)

From now on until I pop my clogs, I'm going to phone HMRC every time a bit of official paper arrives chez blethers, be it a tax coding or an allowance. I'm going to query every last thing. Join me. They asked for it.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Off the beach ...

Fort among the palms:al Bitnah
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Eight hours after arriving at Dubai airport, we set off on a trip to the Eastern Emirates. Yes, the shock of getting only 4 hours in bed made it feel a bit like Christmas morning, but I'm glad we did this first, on what turned out to be the coolest weather of our week, for we learned a great deal from our German guide and saw a very different side of life from the luxurious lazing of the rest of our holiday. The fort of Al Bitnah, one of the foremost heritage sites in the country, sat among palm trees far below where we stood, but the dusty colour of the stone and the brown hills were a far cry from the blue-green sea that dominated our view from the hotel, and the Al Hajar mountains were as high and as rocky as you could wish for (about 3,000' ; the name is Arabic for 'stone mountains'). It was there that we heard our second call to prayer that day - the first had echoed over the fish market in Diba al Fujeirah at midday - and the sound, mingling with the wind, was strangely enough a moving reminder of what united rather than divided us. You can hear a bit of it on the short clip that sits next to this photo on flickr - click through to find it. At another fort, Fujeirah, I saw four green parrots fly past.

It was on this trip that I found out that fewer than 20% of the population of Dubai are native emiratis - everyone else is a foreigner, and we heard English all over the place as the common means of communication. We realised even sooner, in the car that took us from the airport to the hotel, the dire working hours of many of them; our driver, from Nepal, often worked 18 hours a day. But out here at the foot of the mountains we saw a man herding goats among the palms, and you can see vegetables growing on the bottom left of the photo. And I learned the origin of the double rope that forms part of the Bedouin headgear: it was used to hobble a man's camel in the desert.

Camel in pickup, courtesy of Mr B
On the road back to Dubai, we were told that the fences along the side of the road were partly to restrain wandering camels - we saw some, grazing on bits of scrub - and partly to protect the desert from - wait for it - picnickers. Apparently the natives of Dubai like to return to their desert roots every now and then, so pile into their big 4x4s and head out of town, to park just off the road and fire up a barbeque. The story went that they aren't too careful with their rubbish, and it's easier to clean up after them if it's not scattered over acres of empty sand. Talking of camels: you may think of the ships of the desert and all that stuff, but did you know they tend to be flown in to the UAE from the Sudan? Or that they sometimes travel rather like sheepdogs, in the back of a pickup?

I fear I may be becoming a bore. I shall desist. I couldn't live there, for all sorts of reasons - forget the clothes restrictions: they have no home postal delivery, for heaven's sake. Imagine having to go for your mail and finding it full of Orvis catalogues ...