Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BIG deal?

I should have known better. Some time last year, in an idle moment, I sent one of my lighter poems to a site which promised a prize - a cash prize big enough to be tempting - for the best submission. Since then, I've been bombarded with vanity publishing offers, commemorative pins, plaques ... you name it. I could have filled my house with laudatory tat. I have deleted all these as they arrive, vowing each time never, never to do such a thing again.

And then yesterday's mail arrived. For a fairly princely sum, I can attend a Convention and Symposium in Las Vegas, where I can read my poem aloud and where Tony Danza, star of several long-running hit TV shows, will be entertaining you and thousands of other poets at our Gala Dinner and Banquet on Saturday evening, July 26, 2008.

The mind boggles. Obviously my font is boggling too, as it has stuck in some alien form at the thought of a return to Vegas. But I must remember to check out the site on the appropriate date - just to see if people actually go to these things.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ticked off

Ticked off
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This, gentle reader, is a tick bite. It is on my arm, just above the wrist. It itches like something unladylike with which I shall not sully this blog. And it's been there for rather longer than I think healthy, so in an hour or so I shall see the practice nurse and find out if my arm is about to fall off. And no, the nurse is not practising on me.

I do not remember ticks as featuring largely in my childhood. I don't mean the hours spent playing on a bomb site or among the trees above the underground shelters in the west end of Glasgow, but I do mean the annual two months in which I roamed, more or less as I pleased, in the woods and hills of Arran. All these times we lurked in the bracken hiding from one another did not result in later minute examination of the skin and attack with oil and tweezers.

Why are there more of the creatures? Are there more deer? And how is it that something so miniscule can effect so much damage in the space of an hour? Answers welcomed ....tick all the boxes, if you can.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Virtually everything?

Now here's interesting! I just found this courtesy of Mark who leads the Anglican Community on Second Life, and have this sudden vision of all my online networking taking place in a virtual reality setting.

This is fascinating, if a tad mindbending; as it's late and my mind is feeling quite bent enough already I shall merely note the idea and leave it for now. But it has interesting implications for my mission in the church in Argyll ....

Friday, April 25, 2008

Great and small

I just learned, thanks to my knowledgeable rellies and a timely link to the RSPB site that the large white bird I saw on the roadside near Inveraray the other day was a ptarmigan. At 50mph it's not easy to make out what you're seeing, especially if you're the kind of person who just knows of Small Brown Jobs, but this plump beauty was quite unlike anything I'd spotted before. It was, I would say, in the process of losing its winter plumage, if the big brown splodges were anything to go by.

The small brown jobs are great just now, however, and two of them appear to be building a nest in our weigela. I think they are sparrows, and I'm interested to notice that they seem to be using the very fork in the branches that housed a family of blackbirds last summer. So far they are a bit agitated when I go out to retrieve the washing, but they'll have to get used to me. I only found out about last year's nest when the babies were just about to fly.

I'm cat-watching with renewed vigilance.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Announcing ...

Finding myself missing ....well, travel, actually, on this bleakly misty day, I consoled myself by posting a new poem from my recent trip to Nevada. You'll find it here.

It's strange to notice how often I clock Las Vegas as a backdrop to drama and reality shows on TV, now that I've been there. It didn't feel familiar while I was in the place, but now I feel it should have. Maybe I simply felt the unreality of it, as if I too was part of some fiction.

But the most real part was the desert, and the thought of the uses to which we put it in the last century - and that's what the poem is about.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ducking and dying

Just been indulging myself with another Christopher Brookmyre, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. Set in and around my alma mater and familiar bits of Glasgow's West End, this is an ingenious foray into the world of psychics and mediums, which for much of its narrative has you wondering as to the exact state of its principal narrator, Jack Parlabane.

Using several points of view, the story blows a mighty wind through the mists of psychic readings and is genuinely gripping as it approaches the denouement. I love the cocky Parlabane, who first appeared in Quite Ugly One Morning, and I enjoyed picturing my old haunts thinly disguised as Kelvin University. As usual, I have the feeling that the spattering of very topical allusions in the dialogue will render these books ephemeral, but I shouldn't imagine Brookmyre worries about that.

This is a cracking good story with, perhaps, rather less of the laddishness of earlier books - which the author apparently felt made them an unsuitable read for someone's mother.

As the blurb has it: death is not the end - it's the ultimate undercover assignment.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Brain training: a new approach?

How often do we listen to a talk, a lesson - a sermon, even - and let it wash over us? Perhaps we begin attentively enough, but drift down a personal byway and never get back - I used to do that during maths lesson, with dire results: it's impossible to latch on to the principles of calculus when you've had a ten-minute mental lapse. Perhaps the speaker is not particularly riveting and we doze off ... doom. Anyway, I'm now wandering. Back we come.

There is nothing more calculated to make me listen to a sermon than the sudden realisation that it's my turn to write it up for the local paper. And it's not always easy, by the time the sermon is over, to recall what was said as distinct from what you personally took from it - for that's the way with a sermon, oftener than not, and I think it's fine. But you can't go writing it up from a personal slant - because then you run the risk of the speaker buttonholing you to tell you you were way off beam and how dare you misrepresent them .... You get my drift.

In any other circs, of course, you'd take notes. It just seems somehow contrary to the spirit of the occasion to take notes from the front pew in a small church and a smaller congregation. And so it remains: an interesting exercise, worthy, almost of Dr Kawashima.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Recurring nightmare?

There's been a wee exchange - not really a wonderful one, but there you are - on Kimberly's blog today, about coping with housekeeping, a full-time job, and the necessity to do things like blogging. Ok, so you don't find the last a necessity? Some of us do - or it might be reading, or talking on the phone, or climbing mountains: life-enhancing activities to which we feel drawn and which pull us away from tedious but worthy tasks.

Since retiring from paid employment in a situation where your every move was controlled by bells - right down to that pressing comfort break, as they call it in polite circles - I realise once again how much harder it is, in a way, to cope with freedom. If you have to make up your own timetable, compensating tomorrow for tasks left undone today, things can slide. Boy, can they slide. But I reckon I've hit on the solution as far as routine housework is concerned. (I'm not talking about cooking here. I like to eat, and I like to eat well)

If you don't do, say, the vacuuming on the appointed day one week, make no attempt to do it a couple of days later when you could be out in the sun which has suddenly appeared. Leave it till the day you've designated comes round again. You won't really notice, and no-one else will notice if you don't draw their attention to the stour. When you get round to doing it a week later, the carpets will look so good by comparison that you'll get double the satisfaction. See, housework never goes away. Never. So you're never really on top of it. Ergo, it's not worth getting in a tizz about it. Get on with living instead.

Just make sure you live with someone who agrees with you ....

Thursday, April 17, 2008

At the violet hour?

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Funny how I always misquote Eliot's opening line to myself: I tend to think of the violets which grow out of seemingly dead ground at this time of year. Today on Loch Striven there were great swathes of them along the verge, as well as tiny bright clusters like the ones in this photo. There were also multitudes of primroses and huge banks of acid yellow gorse - two contrasting yellows which couldn't have been more different.

Loch Striven is magical in spring. There are pheasants everywhere, the wee dowdy females pursued by strutting males in all their glossy greens and reds, emitting these startling croaks which sound almost mechanical in origin. Long-legged waders with curved beaks stalked the water's edge, and an oyster-catcher revved up to his penetrating see-saw squawk.

And because it is the school holidays here, there were people - some on foot, but even more in cars, resolutely driving to the road's end and back again: each one giving us two chances to dive for the verge and watch to see if they acknowledged us.

And I walked along trying to remember bits of The Waste Land and thinking of the waste of trying to teach me to appreciate it at Uni. I'd do a great deal better now - even if I do substitute violets for lilacs!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cut down to size

I have a hunch that if there had been hydrangeas around in the time of Christ, there might have been a parable woven around the pruning of same. I've just finished pruning the second of the massive and elderly bushes in our garden - they were there when we bought the house 33 years ago, and they looked much the same then as they do now. Pruning is always the same. I find a new shoot 'way down a sturdy branch and immediately cut just above it. I watch with awe as the tiny sprout lengthens and grows; last year they grew a full three feet over the summer. I feel excited (well - not wildly, but this is a story) about new growth on old wood, even though I know it will not flower this season. And then I forget about it ...

..Until the following Spring. And the shoots which gave me such a buzz (relatively speaking) are now silly long, bendy boughs with a stupid tuft of leaves at the top, blackened no doubt by late frosts, and I cut them down to within an inch of their lives. Again, they won't flower this year. If I go on like this they will never flower. They will always be new and leafy until they turn into over-long woody monstrosities which I demolish altogether. And there will once more be a huge pile of cut branches to remove to the recycling.

Actually, I hate my hydrangeas and I loathe pruning them. But I couldn't help making mental parallels as I grunted and hacked away. Too much lay training, I reckon, is bad for a seasonal gardener.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pricey pee?

Spotted in Glasgow's Central Station, this wonderful notice conjured up a multitude of possible answers and scenarios. Primarily, I suppose, there was this wonderful image of someone who did indeed suffer from a pressing need but who, strapped for the necessary 30p, was doomed. The sign seemed almost gleeful in anticipation and I couldn't help thinking of the woman in Edwin Morgan's poem "At Central Station". Added to that, of course, the implications of the slippery floor warning seemed to promise injury added to insult - and raised the worrying spectre of unmentionable horrors.

The chap heading down the stair seems unfazed by the price hike. Perhaps he reckons it's worth it to get a shot of the Dyson "blade" hand dryers...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Helium or hot air?

Back again. No blogging since Thursday as I went into Martha mode, from which I have returned, exhausted. However, the photo here shows why I did it: two joyous friends celebrating the culmination of another Cursillo weekend. Not a weekend I was attending - I was one the wee legs thrashing away below the water, helping the weekend to surprise and delight, clearing up the considerable aftermath. And as a result, my pleasure was in seeing the results, and in the warmth of the reaction to our work.

And for the rest? Well, there's a great restaurant in Perth's South Street, where six of us had splendid fish and game before resuming our toil. There was the fun of camping in a friend's house (thanks for leaving the heating on, Hugh!) and the wonder of sharing real conversation without any inhibitions. The only casualty was the odd exploding balloon - rainbow-coloured rubber, not human. The actual business of the weekend was, in a way, paralleled among us who call ourselves The Fourth Day - living proof of the effect of Cursillo, when you get me - moi! - arranging wee pots of rainbow-coloured flowers.

And talking of rainbows: that amazing jacket in the photo was a spontaneous, wonderfully crazy gift. Like Cursillo, in fact.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pepys lives!

Assiduous readers of this blog will know that I lost my personal journal the other month by leaving it on a BA plane. (They will also know that BA's way with lost property is up there with its abilities with new terminals and baggage handling). So distraught was I at this loss that I vowed never to keep a journal again. After 50 years of diary-writing, I would cease. Blogging would do, I thought.

Well, it didn't. Do, I mean. Suddenly I realised that life without a journal felt too transient - that days merely passed, unrecorded, and were lost for ever. So a few days ago I began another kind of journal, this time in a beautiful hardbacked book given by a friend and still waiting for some suitable use. I shall not be hidebound by ruled spaces and the tyranny of the calendar, but I shall record the passing of time nonetheless as the whim takes me.

And suddenly life seems real again. Sad, eh?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Twittering away

I love this. I got the link from Neil, who sent me here. It shows all the stuff I tweet about - and if you don't know about Twitter maybe this is the day. It would be just the thing to update, for example, the Bishop's diary: if he tweeted "On Lewis" we wouldn't even try to get him to pop down for a flying visit to Dunoon, and if "Too busy to talk to a soul" or "driving from Campbeltown to Fort William" we'd know not to ring. No-one would be offended and everyone who cared to know would be in the loop.

But you can see from my little cloud of tweets above that I seem to be preoccupied with offspring and bed. Sounds just about right ...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

New, improved ....

A spin-off from my judging of the school talent contest t'other night was a visit to the classroom of one of my erstwhile colleagues in the English Department. I've barely been in the building since our abortive attempt to hold a choir practice in the music department - abortive because of the combination of bagpipes and poor soundproofing - so I was interested to see what kind of room I might have ended up in had I stayed on till the new building was finished.

I'm really glad I didn't. Really glad. My last fifteen or so years in Dunoon Grammar were spent in a room in what was then "the new bit", and I always regarded it as a terrible let-down after the spacious top-floor room I'd been evicted from when the MFL dept wanted it back. However, this new room had it beat for lack of amenity.

For a start, it was still smaller, by about a couple of feet either way. And there were no cupboards. No built-in cupboards - and no space in which to stand one. An arrangement of four flimsy shelves on a back wall - about 4' long, I'd say - held tottering piles of the folders necessary to hold the coursework for five yeargroups. I used to keep the folios carefully stashed away, so that precious work was not open for accident or worse, but there is now no provision for this. My pal was contemplating acquiring some boxes to keep them in: I suggested wine crates.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about the shiny new techy stuff? Who needs folders when all the work could be held electronically? Well, quite. The techy stuff consisted of a handful of the laptops which used to travel round the department in two trolleys, plus a distinctly elderly desktop machine of the large, fawn variety. These were ranged along a shelf at the back of the room, behind the desks. The power supply for this lot came via a cable which originated below the whiteboard at the front of the room, was sellotaped to the wall till it reached the ceiling where it was fed above the tiles, re-emerging (with more sellotape) above the rear shelf.

The only improvement I could see was a ceiling-mounted projector. Otherwise the space was a cramped, over-heated, under-equipped box - and apparently the 28 Higher students who use the room fill it to bursting point. I'd hate to have to work there. My pal is a tidy sort of bloke, but anyone with less than a submariner's ability to stow their gear would find it a nightmare.

Why do these things happen? I hope my friend gets his wine crates - perhaps at least one of them should be full.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Nothing to crow about

Spotted in yesterday's Guardian, and still to be found here, in a piece about a memorial service for Sir Edmund Hillary, a sad but faintly hilarious (no pun intended) example of that common fault in writing, the misrelated participle:
Featuring Tibetan prayer wheels against a blue background, the knights escorting it paused at the back of the chapel while Mereana Hond, a human rights lawyer and TV journalist, performed the karanga welcome call.
As always, there is a moment when you envisage what is suggested. I wish I could draw - for the knights featuring prayer wheels sound like something out of th Revelation of St John the Divine. Tsk tsk.

And today, a word for the passing of a crow. We passed it on the shore path, apparently too feeble to do more than fly a yard or so in front of us. We skirted it quietly and left it standing in the late afternoon sun in the middle of the path. When we returned an hour or so later, it was dead. It seemed to have keeled over where we had left it.

It seemed a peaceful way to go.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Judgement Day

Apologies for a rather feeble photo (didn't have my Leica) to illustrate this evening's activity: I was part of the team of judges for the Talent Contest at DGS. A hard task, actually - there were twenty or so acts, ranging from hip-hop dance to a jazz trio to stand up comics, so that to differentiate was quite a balancing act.

In the end the prize went to a boy playing an oud with great skill and panache. It was fun, in an exhausting sort of way, but I'm really glad I don't have to go to work tomorrow. It was also very strange to go into the new building and feel so unfamiliar with it all; the Forum comfortably accommodated tonight's audience of over 400 but felt a bit like a prison compound, while the English classroom I was taken to visit afterwards was tiny, cluttered (there were no cupboards; just shelves) and the laptops on a shelf along the back wall were served by a wire sellotaped up the wall and behind the ceiling tiles. All very Heath Robinson.

Still, it was a good night in memory of a popular janitor - I'm glad I said "yes" after all.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Oh well, all right. No blue face, and no hair extensions either. But I do feel a sense of freedom right now, having discarded my only private student on the grounds that he kept giving me late notice that he wouldn't be coming (at breakfast this morning - he was on a trip that was arranged ages ago) or - even more annoying - simply not turning up. A bright kid, engaging and essentially well-mannered - but completely scatter-brained and disorganised.

I've commented on this before. His parents, middle-class and highly educated both, know fine how scatty he is. But do they take the trouble to nag him about his obligations? Or even ask him if he's checked in about a lesson if there's any doubt? Or even - shock, horror - tried contacting me themselves to see how he's getting on/apologise/offer an explanation?

No on all counts, I'm afraid. So, on behalf of teachers everywhere who are deemed to be beyond common courtesy - I walked away. And I wrote the letter. It's in the post. And I feel liberated.

"Free at last" ... if you prefer Larkin. Source, anyone?