Thursday, March 29, 2012

Never constituted to be a saint*

I finished reading Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria last week, but was overtaken by sunshine and the desire to be out of doors so that by the time I might have blogged about it I was too tired to make sense - and I feel that Richard himself might have approved of my priorities.

The book is subtitled A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, and while I was reading it I saw a tweet from an acquaintance opining that surely he'd talked enough about both these things. I disagreed - in 140 characters, natch - because it's obvious that both have been a presence for most of the author's life. If something matters, you talk about it, especially if your talking and your writing are fluent and persuasive.

I loved it. I loved the way it conjured up the childhood of the movies and the hills, and I was appalled at the thought of a boy of fifteen going to the school that would turn him out for ordination - or not - at the end of his studies there. Fifteen! Holloway is painfully honest about the guilt that the normal preoccupations of a teenage boy cost him; his description of his struggles with sex seems to hold at once the pity of the older man for his youthful self and the rawness of that self at the time.

The book was enlivened in another way by the familiarity of knowing not only the author but some of the people mentioned, being familiar with Old St Paul's both in the time when he was Rector there and again now, when I also know the house in which he and his curates lived and where that disastrous attempt at communal living took place. I found lights coming on in corners of my memory, of conversations illuminated decades after they took place. I laughed aloud at the thought of the matching donkey jackets, boots, trousers and bicycles, and was glad that the author too seemed to be laughing.

But it is in the defining of faith and doubt that this book makes its mark, and when it reaches the point at which Holloway resigns as Bishop of Edinburgh, he spells out the precise nature of his problem:
I felt glutted with the verbal promiscuity of religion and the absolute confidence with which it talked about what was beyond our knowing. The irony was that in one of Paul's great poems, God chose to empty himself of language and become a life. But along comes Christianity and turns it back into words, trillions of them, poured out incessantly in pulpit, book and on the airwaves, reducing the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter.  (...) Religious language had ceased to be able to convey the mystery of the possibility of God for me because it confidently claimed to make present that which I experienced as absence; though it was an absence that sometimes feels like a presence ...

And then I am back in the words of another hero of mine, the poet R.S. Thomas, and realise that there is only one word more needed from me.


* Leaving Alexandria, p.350
There is a great new review from Ruth here

Of plainsong, penitence and nightly fears and fantasies

We were practising plainsong this morning - a group from the congregation learning the Tonus Peregrinus and familiarising themselves with the twiddly endings of the second part of the psalm, which had a few interesting ligatures to confuse and delight. And as a result, I've been singing plainsong in my head ever since - not just the chants we were doing, but somehow, mysteriously, parts of Compline as well as whatever ideas flitted over my brain wedded to a succession of neumes.

We're doing a basic Prayer Book evensong for our contribution to the Holy Week services in the town, and so we're singing all the syllables and using traditional language - and I have to say it was fine, and that I was happy to do this and let it wash over me without a qualm. But what strikes me in these moments is how conscious of sin and unworthiness the church was, how insistent on human sinfulness and the need to repent, and how aware of frailty and vulnerability. This is backed up by the collection of spiritual readings that I tend to digest before bed - last night's homily from the early church was full of the need to contrast sinful me with the purity of Christ. And they were so afraid of the night - of nightly fears and fantasies, of all perils and dangers of the night. The nights must have been so very dark, and so full of the unknown and the feared, when life was short and surrounded by threat.

Are we so sure now that we've got it all licked? With our electric lights, our computers transmitting our late-night ramblings to anyone who cares to read them, our antibiotics and skilled surgeons? Is the universe really tamed, the night purged of fear? And sinfulness? Let's not even go there.

But if we waken at four to soundless dark, what do we think of? Unresting death? I can't think that Philip Larkin was alone in this. I shall continue to love Compline, to plainsong, above any other service of the church.  And now it's past midnight ...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Going back

A concert in memory of Kenneth Elliott had me back at Glasgow University last night. Oddly, I felt most at home actually in the Memorial Chapel, to the right of this picture of the Arts Quadrangle, although in my first year I seemed to spend an unconscionable amount of time queuing in the corner where the lights are, in the icy wind that seemed to whirl round the quad in October. The Latin lecture theatre - or Humanity, if you prefer - was right in the corner, and I have a feeling we accessed our English lectures somewhere nearby. Not that I ever queued for Latin, for the lecture in first year was at 9am and if you were foolish enough to arrive a minute after 9 the door was locked and you had to go through the prof's room and sit, isolated, in the window bay with a splendid view of Glasgow and the red face of the marked one. I was always on time.

There was a moment of consternation last night when I realised that the huge, freezing loos that used to lurk at the foot of the stairs up to the Arts quad (or the Science stairs for the chaps) had gone, replaced by offices. They always seemed to be open; I don't know what evening visitors do now. The staff toilets, however, where we were directed from the Chapel, were a far cry from the old provision.

But the chapel seemed less changed than other places. To be sure, there are new, back-damaging wooden chairs lower at the rear than at the front, linked so close that it was as well that we were sitting with old friends, but the choir stalls where we sat were the same - except that the choir wasn't singing from there last night but from the area round the communion table. There was an exhibition on the walls as part of the dubiously-named Lent Fest, but otherwise it was the same lofty, strangely godless but acoustically interesting space as ever - great for singing, difficult for speech. (Though I do think that someone who works in the Uni ought to be better able to project his voice than the chap who introduced the concert).

The Chapel Choir sang beautifully - some lovely sopranos - and much of the music was very familiar to me. So I noticed when there were ... deviations. Ah well.  Afterwards, we chatted outside with friends,  as we might have done had we been going for the bus to Broomhill - only we were heading for the midnight ferry.  No chance, then, of remaining in the past ...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An unseasonal soup recipe

Hmm. Posting this on a day when the sun is shining and it's warm enough to be outside in only one layer of clothing, the steaming soup in the photo seems inappropriate. But on Monday, when the rain was lashing down and I was on my own all morning, I raided the bottom of the fridge and found ... a microwaveable turnip. It had languished there, in its little bag, peeled and ready to pop in the micro, for over a week, forgotten. It had developed an unsightly rash of brown spots. It would have to go. Out of it came this soup, for once I'd peeled off a thin layer the spots had gone. It was joined by three small, bendy carrots and a bit of chorizo that had already been opened ... and this is the recipe:

One small turnip (or neep, or swede, or rutabaga - take your pick)
3 small carrots (or whatever)
one onion
about 3 inches of chorizo
a fat clove of garlic
5 cardamon pods, squashed
a good heaped teaspoon smoked paprika
pint and a half vegetable stock

Chop turnip into 1" cubes, the carrot(s) into bits. Slice onion, crush garlic.
Take casing off chorizo and chop into quartered thick slices. Brown vegetables and chorizo in a little butter in heavy soup pot, adding garlic later with the cardamom and paprika.
Add stock, and simmer for 30 minutes or so.
Blast with hand-held mixer - as you can see, I left the odd bit of chorizo un-zubbed.
Check seasoning and add salt if needed.

There will be the odd strand of turnip/cardamon pod, but the chorizo provides a pretty pink speckled effect and the taste was delicious.

Here endeth my first online recipe.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Confessions of a church cleaner

Water jug
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I'm just back from the last stint for now of church cleaning. My partner-in-crime and I somehow let the first week of our duty pass without us, and for some reason we're only on for three weeks this time, so we've got off lightly ... but that's fine. What we both realised, however, if that we have a dislike of routine cleaning (that's the hoovering and dusting) and much prefer the more esoteric tasks - though the hoovering has been done, religiously, because that's what people notice. Apparently.

But what we really enjoy is the brass. Take the jug in the pic, taken four years ago when it hadn't been used in living memory. I've just finished polishing it, so it now gleams brassily - I think it looks like copper in the photo. We also did the holder for the Paschal Candle. Last week we did the brass lectern - that takes about 30 minutes if you do it properly - and the crucifix on the altar, and the altar candles. We washed the tiles in the sanctuary. I polished the bookstand ...

For two pins we'd have censed the church while we worked, but we were a bit pushed for time. The wood polish ran out, frustratingly, but I did the grubby pew ends where people's hands go and left the seats to be cleaned by ... well, bottoms, actually. I think some wood shampoo wouldn't go amiss - maybe after les travaux occasioned by the acquisition of a lottery grant?

But I mustn't get carried away. Right now if you breathe in Holy T you get paint flakes falling like dandruff on the carpet, and my cleaning days are over for another spell.

Besides, I don't clean my own house ...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nothing new about teaching Scottish Literature, but.

I was irritated by something I overheard on Radio Scotland this morning - something that had already irritated me when it was first announced in January. I'm referring to Mike Russell's proclamation that Scottish Literature is to be a compulsory part of the school curriculum for Higher English students. Someone else repeated that in a half-heard chat this morning, and I fell to thinking of all the so-called new initiative implied.

I imagine the average punter would assume, since it's being trumpeted, that no English teachers until now have bothered with Scottish writers. Naw - it's all Shakespeare and Milton, innit? Well ... no. Actually Scottish writing has been an important part of the English curriculum from the start of my now-defunct career in teaching, even if, back in the late '60s, Folk Tales of the Borders and The Twa Corbies seemed to dominate. But in the last 20 years of my time in the classroom, I can't think of any year group that didn't enjoy Scottish writers ...

Like the S2 boys who were so taken with the poetry of Edwin Morgan that they wrote him a laboriously-composed letter and were delighted to get a reply ...
Like the S3 girl who loved Morgan's Strawberries so much that she did a solo talk for Standard Grade on it and then sent him a copy of her talk: again, she had a personal reply and was thrilled ...
Like the Higher students, year after year, who shared Chris Guthrie's horror as her crippled father demanded she come to him,  who later wept at the fate of Ewan ...
Like the S2 pupils who learned to appreciate effective metaphor from Norman MacCaig's Visiting Hour ...

...and I haven't even mentioned Robin Jenkins or Ian Crichton Smith or The Coming of the Wee Malkies or The Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket, or how an S4 boy with quite severe learning problems suddenly understood metre after reading the opening line of one of Morgan's sonnets, with which I think I'll stop:

A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dali's Christ

 © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

There are no nails
no bonds or blood to mar
perfection. Instead, the figure hangs
beautiful above the flat sea
watched – or ignored – by anachronistic fishermen,
brooding over the water yet
soaring out to embrace
the viewer in the small space
dwarfed by the cosmos that is
the final resting of the crucified.
The humanity is complete,
the only agony visible in the twist
of the arms, the taut sculpture
of tormented shoulders,
but this is God who leaves behind
the tawdry superscription that would
seek to limit him,
this is God who reaches out as
crucifix to dying lips
as benediction to the world
as light into the darkened sky –
stop. Look up. Can you not
feel the wind?

©C.M.M. 02/12

Written after my last visit to the Kelvingrove Art Galleries, when I saw the painting familiar to me for most of my life in a new setting - the fourth I've seen it in. I'm indebted to Glasgow Museums for permission to use the image.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Another for the suitcase

I've just finished Erin Kelly's novel The Poison Tree. If you follow the link to Amazon, you can watch a short video of the author talking about the story and the impulse behind it, so in a way all I need to say it that I found it gripping, well-written and alarmingly convincing.

It's set in 1997 London and ten years later in a house on the Suffolk coast, and it is only now, as I start to write this, that I remember the Prologue that I read a couple of weeks ago, and how it set up the tension and mystery that persists throughout that long hot summer (was it hot in Scotland? - must check) and resurfaces in the later time period. This is a coming-of-age story, but it is also the story, ultimately, of a woman who has everything to lose and the strength to protect what she loves.

There is murder at the heart of the story, but until it happened I was unable to predict who would die and how. I was sometimes unable to read it at bedtime - I try to avoid over-stimulation past midnight - but I knew I was drawn into the life in the big house beside the wood and the recklessly amoral life of Biba who befriends the narrator, Karen. Kelly manages to demolish the intervening years, no matter how many, to revive our own time of hedonism and irresponsibility, whether in the '90s or - as in my case - the '60s, though on reflection I recognise my own relief at not being stranded in a life of sex, drugs, rock & roll by simple virtue of living at home. The seductive nature of such freedom and its corrosive effect creep out of the heat and the haze of spliff-smoke, all of which vanish like smoke after the evening of murder and its results.

The Poison Tree ends in the dark, in the wind, in the cold. There will be life after the story ends - but Karen is no longer who she was, in more ways than one.

Great for the suitcase.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

When two or three are gathered together ...

I have been attending the diocesan synod of Argyll and The Isles for some years now - since before I retired, come to think of it - and my memory of both it and the General Synod tends to involve an overwhelming desire to nod off after lunch. This could, of course, be blamed on the nature of our synod meetings: because people have to travel so arduously to come together in Oban, we have a two-day event - and the clergy have three days -  with a jolly dinner (left) after the pre-Synod day and the Synod Eucharist. (This year we all piled into a large bus in the rain and were swept out to the Bishop's palace by the shore to drink wine before returning to the Gathering Halls for dinner, but that's another story that might include my speculating on the effect on the neighbours if we'd all invaded the wrong house ...)

But to the Synod. This year, despite all the junketing, I didn't sleep at all at Synod. For a start, I had work to do; the entire meeting was held round tables on which were bowls of grapes and chocolates and bits of paper and a marker pen, and I was facilitating the discussion at one of them. I would never have believed the positive effect that this simple move had: instead of sitting in rows, able to communicate briefly and surreptitiously with at most two people, we were made to sit with people from all over the diocese and we were encouraged to talk with them, get to know them a bit, and - most importantly - come to trust them as we spoke.

By the time we came to the discussion of the Anglican Covenant, the knitting lady had laid aside her knitting and we were all leaning forward over the table. People became passionate but there was no hostility, and there were moments of sharing that seemed to belong to a real family. We could, it seemed, have gone on all afternoon, and found it hard to stop when we were called to order. It was alive, this church, and I could see that life on faces elsewhere in the room.

I don't yet know the outcome of our discussion. It will be assessed from written responses of the groups and then shared. I got the impression that we thought the Covenant un-Anglican, and that we felt very aware of our uniquely Scottish identity. But I had more than an impression of something else, something very closely tied to the presence that was in the midst of us as we gathered together.

And for me at Synod,  that was a first.