Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hamlet, revenge!

I was interested to see that at least one person had offered on Amazon the very copy of Michael Innes's Hamlet, Revenge that I have just finished reading for the first time since my teens. I first read the book - this copy of the book - when I had just been studying Hamlet for the first time, in school - for we all know Shakespeare wrote the play for Higher English students - and was firmly in its grip, to the extent of learning soliloquies off by heart because I wanted, in some way, to own the words. I have a feeling, in fact, that this would be the very first Michael Innes I read, having recently embarked on my parents' shelves of Edmund Crispin and realised the joy of the green Penguin.

I'd like to look briefly at some of the things about this old favourite that caught my attention this time round. I was pretty certain I remembered who had committed the murder, though not how or why, though there were big tracts of the detection that had escaped me. And I noted that this, like the later A Private View, is a proper detective novel as distinct from the crazier fantasies that I've previously reviewed. I have a horrid feeling that I prefer the fantasy, and have tended to become bored by the minutiae of detection presented in the more traditional examples of the genre, but I'm justifying the frivolity of my current reading matter by paying proper attention to it - should I really be thinking of a PhD in the subject?

But I digress. What actually struck me most is the realisation that I used to feel quite comfortable with the social distinctions underlined in these books - whether among the toffs at Scamnum Court or the academics at Oxford; whether poking fun at foreigners or caricaturing Scots and their way of life. Now  the word most commonly used to describe a black man leaps out of the page and the fact that it is actually being applied to an Indian academic seems doubly odd, and the affable quiddities of the Duke of Horton seem anachronistic and not to be indulged. There is the threat of the impending war (Hamlet, Revenge was first published in 1937) and there are no mobile phones. In fact, much detective fiction would not exist in its original form, it seems to me, if mobile communications had been available - when Appleby, now an Assistant Commissioner of Police, embarks on a foolhardy solo venture in A Private View, a phone in his pocket would have ended the whole escapade before it got under way.

But I am still entertained. The language is beautifully precise and stimulating - did readers of detective fiction simply have more erudition half a century ago? (or more, dammit - or more!) Or is it like Shakespeare, now the preserve of an elite but once much more widely enjoyed? Did readers read and non-readers toil merely? I am in a world that comforts strangely, despite the murders and the fogs. Perhaps it is just that it is the world in which I was young - for the fifties are a far-off land nowadays - the world in which my well-read parents provided an endless supply of reading matter to a voracious child, where escape from whatever small ills might afflict me was within reach whenever I chose to take refuge in it. (I still remember my father denying knowledge of where I was when small friends came to the door asking 'can Christine come out to play': did he know, I wonder, that I was deep in a book?)

Yes, I am still entertained. But I grow a-weary of the smell of old, yellowing paper ...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A mug's game ...

I wouldn't describe myself as a royalist. Nor do I collect china - I've never even owned a display cabinet, something I feel marks me out as one who has not yet arrived. But the other day I nipped into the local Dunoon Ceramics shop (where the mugs are cheaper than elsewhere) and bought the mug on the right, the gold and white job celebrating the Queen's Jubilee. Why? Because it struck me that, together with the other two in the picture, it might some day be of interest, if not value, to my afterbears. So in a sense, this post is for the attention of my sons, lest in a moment of impatience when I/we are no longer around, they chuck the entire contents of the cupboard in the hall into a skip.

I don't know if there were mugs commemorating the Silver Jubilee - probably they exist. I don't have one. I only had sons at the time, and no mini-afterbears to inherit. But the other two are of interest. The one on the left is an early example of the kind of thing Dunoon Ceramics turned out in their early days. The factory arrived in Dunoon in the same year as we did - 1974 - and turned out thick stoneware mugs and pots, seconds of which sold in The Pot Shop for much less than the perfect articles. I think the Silver Jubilee mug is an obvious second - you can see the imperfections in the glaze, and the handle has some odd chips. It might, of course, have been one of the slung mugs in Mr B's 1977 performance of Britten's Noye's Fludde, in which case it's had a hard life. I don't think I've ever drunk from it.

The Coronation mug, on the other hand, actually bears the marks on the glaze made by my teeth over many years. I think this one came free with the labels from several tins of drinking chocolate. I was seven, and it came to me at the same time as I lost my tonsils, just before the Coronation in 1953. In fact, Coronation Day was the first time I was allowed out of the house after the operation, when we all crammed into the flat below ours to watch the only television in the close. This was where Sanchia Peilou the harpist lived, and we sat surrounded by four concert harps in her elegant Hyndland drawing room which rather dwarfed the television screen at the end opposite the bay windows. The adults drank whatever it was adults drank on these occasions, and there were canap├ęs that tasted odd to me, though I may have been tasting with a distempered appetite at the time.

Anyway, there they are. More curious than valuable, they might amuse some day.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Pisky and the Press

The astute/interested/bored reader of this blog will know that I've been otherwise engaged these last few days - benign activities to do with grandmotherhood have taken all my energies. But normal service has now, sadly, been resumed and I need to pick up on the story that flitted by in a haze last week, when the visiting grandchild was sleeping in the study and the computer visited only briefly.

The story is the one that appeared last week in Scotland on Sunday. You can read it, and you can fill yourself in on another point of view here, where another Pisky blogger was quicker off the mark than I am. A week ago I merely reflected that I had been, perhaps, fortunate, in that I too had received a request: This year instead of the printed Synod Summary, there will be an extra edition of inspires online. We are asking different people from around the province to write up the various sessions and wondered whether you would be willing to write 450 words about the final session - but had in the end not been able to write about the Standing Committee because I was prevented from attending the final session. Fortunate? Well, yes - because by the last morning of Synod I tend to be a bit brain-dead and I'd have had to listen carefully and understand what was going on, but even more so because I'd probably have indulged in some light-hearted comment and got myself lampooned in the press for so doing.

Actually, it's not the press I'm cross about. If Scotland on Sunday has nothing better to report on from a Synod that displayed common sense and humanity on several issues, that's their problem. Their sales dropped by almost 10,000 in the past year, declining, it would seem, at a rate that would make the church blanch. No, I'm afraid its the anonymous church spokespersonman who disowned a lighthearted remark about the potential wiping out of synod members by legionella as being "insensitive and unfortunate". 

So why am I so fed up? In one way, it's because I'm not surprised. And how depressing is that? Do I still feel, as I used to, that actually people like me have no place in this church? People who like a joke, who think unruly thoughts, who ... who are actually ordinary? Maybe it's also a bit of a drawback being young? In addition, I'm fed up because it reminds me of how it feels when you think you're doing something good as a Christian and a church member, only to find that the church disowns you. It can take a while to get over that sort of thing, in my own experience. Maybe one never does. Certainly, the church that seems to have no sense of humour, that bends before a feeble bit of journalism, that seems anxious to toe whatever line a secular society sets for it - that's not an institution I want to be associated with.

But let's end on a positive note. Had I been approached for my take on the original story, I'd have told the newspaper, politely but firmly, that there was no problem in someone having a humorous slant on something we were all talking about at Synod (for we were, and there was much black humour, even among the elderly who might be expected to take umbrage). But let me also say this:
Being a Christian does not mean I've had a humour bypass. Being a Christian does not mean I have no temper. Being a Christian does not automatically make me  less outspoken, less prone to irritation or rushes of blood to the head. Being a Christian may have made me more aware of elements in me that I need to think about - but I do not feel it requires me to be subnormal. Above all, it does not require me to be boring, dull.

I respect - and indeed love - many of the people I know through the Pisky church. I find them stimulating, inspiring and gracious. And that, I guess, is why this story makes me so very fed up.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

After the rain

I have just realised something wonderful. I've suspected it for a few weeks, but today I was sure. I seem to have got my sense of smell back after two years of ... well, nothing, really.

That's not quite true. Be accurate, woman. After a particularly foul bout of sinusitis, I realised I couldn't smell things. It began with the azeleas - the common, yellow ones that have such a strong smell. Other seasonal plants came and went and I couldn't smell them either. Cooking tended to smell of hot metal - although curries made it through to the brain. Nasty smells eluded me too, so I began to fret about the possible consequences ...

Enough. Today the sun came out after hours and hours of rain, and we went for a walk - through the Arboretum, along the path through the woods. And I realised I was being drowned in the incense of the wet pine trees in the sunshine, the tang of the eucalyptus, the intensity of the cut wood by the path. It was wonderful, and I thought I'd lost it forever.

The Philadelphus in the garden had come out while we were walking - its bubble-gum sweetness, along with the stink of the turk's cap lilies beside it, always said solstice, holiday-time ..... I shall be able to smell the bog-myrtle that has always been the Arran of childhood, I shall enjoy the hot smell of rain on the dusty road.  I used to think that if I had to lose a sense, smell would be a no-brainer. But I shall never think of it so lightly again.

Maybe we need to lose something before we truly appreciate it ...

Friday, June 15, 2012

Never Seconds trends on Twitter

I love it. The power of Twitter, that is. I can't be said to love the council for whom I used to work and in whose area I live, nor the idiocy that had them ban a blog about school dinners, nor the illiteracy of the hapless employee who was chosen to write Argyll & Bute's public statement about their reasons for such an action. And I fear, from the relative silence of the council's Twitter stream, that they will currently be buckling under the strain of the incoming flak - I've had to delete the column as it updates too rapidly for me to read at the moment. The blog in question has attracted 2543350 hits and the stat counter shows a new hit every second. You can go and look for yourself while I ramble happily here.

When I ran a school newspaper in an Argyll & Bute school, they did a feature on school meals. We didn't actually think this was out of line - that's not a royal 'we', despite the Jubilee season, it's my pupil editors with my approval - but rather something that would appeal to anyone who'd ever eaten school dinners. As as result, my articulate and wonderful editors - and gosh, haven't they done well in later life? - were hauled over the coals and told that a school meals supervisor had left her job ... Did that really happen? I don't remember being brought into the fray, as the pupils in question assured me there was no need, in another example of fortitude under fire and independence of thought and other worthy attributes that I was proud to help foster.

I've had my ups and downs over social media this week, but today's outpouring shows, perhaps, why people fear it so much. Yes, there is the odd numpty who uses a trending hashtag to post nonsense (usually sexual) on Twitter, but it was easy to filter them out of my screenshot and most of what I've seen reflects the mainstream view: that banning a pupil from taking photos of the food she has paid for and is about to eat is high-handed, authoritarian nonsense. Of course, they will justify it by saying they've banned mobile phones in schools or making some other similarly thoughtful response. People tend to want to ban anything that might expose their workings to public scrutiny - and nowadays, that's virtually impossible. The workings need, then, to be such that the organisation or individual is proud to have them on display - and that, chums, includes the food we feed our children. Martha, whose blog has caused all the furore, seems to rate most of her more recent meals pretty highly - do the council know something she (and we) don't?

I loved my time as teacher editor of The Pupils' View. I'm proud of what my former pupils have achieved, just as I was proud of them at the time. But right now I'm glad I don't teach any more, glad I don't work for Argyll & Bute council, glad I'm not answerable to anyone on this subject. I suspect I'd be too full of rage this morning to work effectively. But if I were still involved, I'd have the satisfaction of knowing that my MP, the Minister for Education, was on my side. How? Because I'd have read it on Twitter.

Footnote: and - again on Twitter - I learn that the Chief Executive of Argyll and Bute Council has reversed the decision to ban the blog. Cheers!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Proud - and twittering

Another Synod gone, and only one photo on my camera of the proceedings (it is surely appropriate that I use one of Fr. Kelvin addressing Synod) - the rest were all of socialising and food. I had more to do this Synod than in previous years, which was interesting and rewarding, and we sang the Sanctus from Mr B's Kilbride Mass at the Eucharist, which people joined in with gusto and seemed to enjoy, but the main event was, I suppose, the one that attracted most attention - the vote on the Anglican Covenant.  We seem to have spent forever kicking it around without actually shooting for goal, so it was good to get the the point of voting on whether or not the Scottish Episcopal Church was going to take it further or reject it.

The debate was civilised and serious - no ranting, no raised voices, but thoughtful points well made. One speaker summed up the Covenant wonderfully when he likened it to a blancmange with shards of glass in it - work that one out. Someone at some point had referred to a French proverb: fier comme un Ecossais. and for me the real surge of pride in my church came at the moment when the votes against adoption were called for. There was a sudden rustle as a sea of voting slips - pink, yellow, purple - rose into the air; people held them high, like so many eager pupils wanting to be seen, rather than the more usual nonchalant pose. The Covenant was firmly rejected, and it felt good then to go on and affirm our desire to remain as part of the Anglican Communion. (You can read a much more knowledgeable account of the proceedings here, where you'll also learn of other good things that took us out of any tendency to navel-gaze;  I'll stick with my own take).

We've come a long way since the 2006 Synod where I moaned about being patronised for blogging, but some things haven't changed. This year it was Twitter. Again. Someone stood to make the point that he'd been brought up to listen attentively to speakers, and that it surely wasn't right that people should sit distracted by tweeting, passing comments online and so on. No, this person wasn't a nonagenarian; he was still just the right side of forty, making me one of the generation that, apparently, had made him thus. And I learned today that the aforesaid Kelvin was at an event where he had been invited to contribute to a discussion on social media - but where all phones and computers were to be turned off. So it's obviously still an issue in too many circles for me not to have another wee rant.

These people who want to stifle digital discussion are, it seems to me, living in what I have just heard deliciously described on the radio as an imagined analogue past - a past where, as the speaker said, everyone read their newspapers from cover to cover and was wonderfully and diversely informed. I'd say this imagined past was also one in which people hung on every word of every speaker at events like Synod, be they never so tedious, and never doodled on their Synod papers; where no-one passed a note to his neighbour or - more disruptively - whispered to her pal. My first reaction to hearing this complaint the other day was to tweet about it - for one of the wonderful things about social media is that we no longer have to seethe internally when confronted with patent nonsense. 

I would contend that if someone speaks interestingly, arrestingly, movingly, that person will be heard with as much attentiveness as anyone could wish for. If they say something memorable, it may well be tweeted and retweeted - a way of sharing a special moment. Most of us turn to less respectful use of social media when we are bored. Stick up a boring speaker and people will either drift off into sleep or check on their email or share a ribald thought online - and that's fine, you know, because as far as I'm concerned the biggest sin in a speaker is to be a bore. I've called in the past for a live back-channel; this year we had a time-delayed one showing what was being said on Twitter after the session had ended, so we're moving forward. 

We're moving forward all right. No-one presented a paper which they then proceeded to read aloud to Synod - they reminded us of what page it could be found on and assumed we'd had the sense to read it. We were moved, entertained, and - largely - involved. But God preserve the church - and me - from the people who want to keep us in the imagined analogue past. Apparently Plato said that using writing would mean that our memories would suffer. We seem to have got past that without going entirely to the dogs, yes? I shall take heart from the knowledge that the perpetrator of the patronising remarks that so irritated me in 2006 is now an amiable blogger. Here's to the next Synod... 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Elizabeth's song

The babe leaps in my womb,
and the Spirit has filled all my soul:
blessed are you among women,
and blessed the fruit of your womb!
And why is it granted to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come?
For behold, when your voice came to me
the babe in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed is she who believed
that the word of the Lord would in her
find fulfilment and dwell among men.


Written a couple of years ago when a friend asked if I could write a song-like version of Elizabeth's words, posted this night after the celebration of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.