Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A different kind of Christmas

Assembly ...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A rather different Christmas, that was - but captured in one of its best moments by the pic accompanying this post, which shows Mr B putting the final touches to a very pink doll's cradle, the recipient of which waits eagerly, doll at the ready. And for me this was always going to be the biggest difference: my first Christmas Day away from home since the year before the daddy of the cradle recipient was born. So farewell, Domestic Goddess, and welcome, leisured guest who spent a great deal of time playing with toys or spread somnolently on the sofa. And d'you know something? It was great.

But there are other memories. The triumphant sense of having helped to make the midnight mass happen, and the joy of singing with a skilled group before and during it, making up in some ways for the cancelled carol service. "Bethlehem Down" is quite tricky by candlelight - even if you do cheat with tiny LED lights. The huge delight of seeing both my grandchildren - to say nothing of their parents - together on Boxing Day, and managing to get photos of them sitting like angels before we ate (again). The relief of journeys safely completed and of knowing the London contingent made it home in one piece.

And there were other firsts. I can't recall when the weather was quite so adverse at this time of the year, making motorway driving as slow as single track road traffic and outings to Asda as perilous as the Rock Fall on Everest. (note hyperbole here). And I haven't spent time in hospital on Christmas Day before, and have nothing but praise for the people who chose to work in Edinburgh Royal on that day and exuded reassurance, pain relief and the exhortation to have some turkey and that glass of Rioja when I got back to the house. (I recovered. I slept a lot)

And where did the message of Christmas come in? I suspect in that last paragraph, actually, for the people who don't focus entirely on church and home but make it possible for others to do so are cheery treasures. As I get older, I realise the futility of trying to hold onto the thrill I felt as a child, the wonder I found as a student in the singing of carols I'd only heard on the radio and could now perform well, the excitement of your own family Christmas as stockings were filled and hung and presents piled beneath the tree. This year we opened our own presents at 2am over a glass of malt, and the rest as part of the excitement of another generation. And that's as it should be. I'm not going to manufacture something that's passing.

Instead, I'm going to enjoy the image created by Fr. Hugh in his midnight sermon, of the Christ Child elbowing aside the ox and the ass of greed and selfishness - an image which had me chuckling at the thought of an infant as muscular and determined as my grandson Alan. It's an image which doesn't depend on ritual or appropriate footwear and which I can carry with me into any future Christmas season. It also gives a better meaning to the platitudinous "Christmas is for children" - for in a sense it is, and for the child in all of us.

So Happy Christmas, children, whatever your age!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Angels in yellow waistcoats

This jolly picture, taken on the path from the Rectory to Holy Trinity church, is not of a member of our congregation, though there were a few of us up there this morning. No, this is a jolly roads department employee - one of a crew who made our morning.

Here's the story. At 9am, five of us de-iced our cars and set off through the fog to meet at the Roads Depot. There we hoped to take some grit in buckets from the public bins and get it onto the really hairy bend on the church drive. We found the bins empty, though we could see a grit mountain inside the perimeter fence. But suddenly, after a short conversation with a foreman (or whatever - as far as I was concerned he was simply the first of this morning's angels, in a beard and woolly hat) we had not only the grit we needed, but also a lorry, three men, a small boy, several shovels and a hand-operated grit spreader.

By the time we'd all parked our cars out of the way and headed up the drive - where the work two of us had done on Tuesday had really paid off with two black pathways in the ice - the lorry was halfway up and the men were cheerily spreading grit - all the way up to the church, round the carpark, and up the steep bit to the rectory. I don't know if they had any church affiliation themselves, but they worked like Trojans in the best possible humour until the foreman pointed our that that was their teabreak time over and they ought to get back so that he could organise the next shift.

So there you have it. Angels in reflective waistcoats making it possible for us to have our Midnight Mass after all. And after a pretty grim Advent on my part, and a stressful week agitating about the church, this morning felt like the coming of the light.

Thanks, chaps. Oh - is it all right to call angels chaps?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Great expectations

Presumably our expectations about life these days give rise to all the panic we see about ...well, snow. I have childhood memories of huge snowbanks at the sides of Glasgow streets, and of being sent home early because the (outside) school toilets were frozen; of wonderful sledging on these unexpected free afternoons because of aforementioned plumbing crises; of launching myself intrepidly down slides in the playground before the janny ruined them with salt. But I don't recall the trams going off, or being kept at home because it was too snowy to travel to school (half an hour away, if you walked).

But now we expect to be cocooned in our cars until the last possible moment when we go anywhere; we expect to whizz along motorways at insane speeds; we expect planes to shake off the shackles of earth without worrying about the improbability of landing safely on black ice - and when something makes this difficult or impossible we go into hyperbolic mode and talk as if the end of the world had come.

I'm as bad, in my own way: if I want to speak to someone and they're not either at home to answer the phone or responding immediately to their mobile, I feel irritation closely followed - if it's family - by panic: is their phone ringing out in a crashed car? Where are they? Why are they out in the snowy dark with a 2 year old when they should be safely at home with In the Night Garden?

So tomorrow, in penance for all this exaggerated expectation, I shall join in further gritting of our church drive (apparently our labours yesterday have produced miraculous improvement; we just need to do it further up) so that we can have our lovely Midnight Mass tomorrow. And then I hope to drive sedately along the M8 to join my family for Christmas dinner. It's been an interesting Advent of flu, cancellations and anxiety followed by relief as family travelled the country to be with us - it would be good to relax for a bit. Especially if someone else is doing the cooking ...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Helpful sharing!

This little gadget is the answer to a teetery maiden's prayer in this weather: rubber oversoles with spikes, which you pull on over your boots/wellies/shoes/trainers. I wore them yesterday to push AJ along the icy West Bay prom to the playpark, and was able to march briskly without a hint of sliding.

I bought them in Tiso's in Glasgow for £25, and my only regret is that we only bought one pair - we thought we'd try them out first. Unless Mr B and I take a foot each, we're kinda limited right now - but this is the official Blethers recommended product for the winter.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Unhelpful sharing

It's a strange feature of the way the mind works so that some images or comments stick and return to haunt us while others pass and are instantly forgotten. I recall once inadvertently seeing a sequence in the film Highlander - a sequence I'm not even going to detail here because I don't want to give it further mileage - which recurred like a nightmare for years. (I should add that I saw it without wanting to as the film was being watched on video in a classroom at the end of term when I happened to be looking for a book in the room. I simply looked up at the wrong moment).

And then of course other people think you're crazy for being affected. But maybe it's a warning against the chance stupid comment, the gratuitous insult, the sharing of information which is better kept unshared. For we never, ever know where it is going to resurface, and we have no idea of the lasting power of our thoughtless words to spoil and destroy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of Time, and its passing*

Goodness. Another reminder of the passage of time in that most unpromising of venues, the recently-rebranded-as-Morrison's in Dunoon. With the re-opening of the larger of the town's supermarkets came the questionable advantage of a couple of self-service checkouts - good if you have a packet of coffee and a carton of milk, but rather slower if you have a big shop which you struggle to accommodate on the smallish bag area. And certainly not good if you have to queue to use the facility in the first place.

I found myself with only a couple of items the other day - just right for a quick swipe at the barcode reader and away. But there was a problem. It was just after midday and the local primary schools were out. A small boy - about nine, I'd guess - was hovering in front of the touch-screen. I asked if he was finished with it, whereupon he dabbed at it with his gloved hand, then hit it, then attempted to operate it with his nose. At this, I suggested he quit fooling around before I lost patience. There was an interesting moment, a fraction of a second, when I wondered if he was going to resist my charm, but no. He left, breenging past me to join his little friends, only to be seized by the checkout assistant who was hovering: he still had to pay for a bag of crisps.

I realised that this assistant was in fact a former pupil of mine, and asked what he had done to deserve the thankless task of guarding the self-service checkouts. It seemed to me that it was the equivalent of the naughty stool, though he assured me it was simply that as a part-timer (because of going to college) he had no status and got all the dirty jobs. "It's these kids, " he told me solemnly. "They're little bastards, all of them. Were we like that?"

I told him that there was a reason for my teaching secondary, and that no, his lot had been relatively civilised when I knew them. But I couldn't help reflecting that this too was a sign of the passing years, when before my very eyes I saw the adult weariness on the face of someone who had been sitting at a desk in front of me ... when? Not yesterday? Not last year?

Oh dear.

*I feel there is a touch of Bacon's essays about this title. I rather like it. But how do you spell breenging?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A fold in time

Really far too tired to blog this, but the moment will pass otherwise... Today's concert, Words & Music for Christmas, was an old formula that we devised some 25 years ago for the choir we had started when we came to Dunoon. The Hesperians was a mixed voice choir, about 15 voices strong, and when we began our Christmas events, always on the third Sunday in Advent, we packed the venue, with people up in the balcony that even then we suspected as being precarious. In 1996 we gave our final such concert and the choir ceased to exist, having run out of tenors.

This year the choir that is really the child of the Hesperians revived the format, and, in a folding of time, that was what we were involved in this afternoon. 8+1 is a female voice group - 8 women, 1 man (Mr B, the MD) - and for today we were augmented by a second bass to sing SATB pieces. The second altos have developed into convincing tenors, and the sound was magical in places; we also sang several pieces arranged for female voices. We actually achieved a sufficiently high standard to put a smile on Mr B's face - not a rueful grimace in sight today!

But the audience reflected the fact that there are so many more carol events in Dunoon these days. Gone the time when we were the only show of this type in town - and gone the children, our children, sitting solemnly in the front row with their grandparents, also long gone. We are the grandparents now - and our grandchildren are far away and probably don't realise that their grandparents don't know their place and are still up there performing. I kept looking up expecting to see feet swinging at the ends of legs too short to reach the floor, and seeing only a sea of grey heads.

But the adrenaline of performance still works its rejuvenating magic, even if we collapse in exhaustion afterwards, and the particular thrill of hearing our own work - Mr B's arrangements; a couple of my poems - performed in public is not easily beaten. The hall may be on the verge of demolition, the balcony long out of bounds because of rot; the choristers may suddenly have become 13 years older without really noticing - but today we performed our socks off, and showed how it can be done.

And if you've never heard The Christ Child's Lullaby arranged for solo voices (Gaelic and English), four part choir, piano and solo cello - you've missed yourself. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A study in parenthesis

Found myself pondering stress, retirement and singing over breakfast this foggy morning. As usual for as long as I can remember - certainly since I was 12 - this time of year is a whirl of activity which is nothing to do with buying presents and drinking mulled wine in Christmas Markets (if only!) and everything to do with Keeping Well (because of having to sing), Very Important Rehearsals (because the gig is tomorrow) and What Shall We Sing at Midnight?

Add to that the deadline for a job I've been doing (before the end of this week) and you have, as near as dammit, the situation I used to be in when I was working. Then, in addition to the singing (remember - singers are the biggest hypochondriacs in the flu season) we tended to have exam marking to finish and the school magazine to get out before the customers started skiving in the run-up to the hols. And when I was a pupil we had the school concert - huge in Hillhead High School in the 60s, and multiplied by 4 the year the St Andrew's Halls burned down and we had to put them on in the (very much smaller) school hall on four nights one hectic week - so were trailing home after 6pm on the foggy Glasgow evenings after two hours of extra-curricular orchestral rehearsal. The choir, I remember, was never allowed to interfere with the orchestra, and had to fit rehearsals in at lunch time.

So I have never, ever, known a peacefully domestic festive season - have never understood when people have said "Just as well you caught flu/the cold/winter vomiting/bubonic plague before Christmas" - because, for me, Christmas has always come as a great "whew!" that I made it all (or didn't, as this year: I still haven't reconciled myself to the cancellation of last week's carol service). In a way, this mirrors my retirement so far - and that's where this morning's ponderings came in. Were I to chuck it all, to confine my singing to the shower (sounded great this morning) and my church activities to the pew on a Sunday; to refuse any invitation to practise my professional skills in retirement - would I turn into a placid, relaxed pensioner with time to visit friends and take little mid-week breaks in interesting cities?

Or would I simply die of boredom?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Growing up is hard to do ...

I was catching up earlier this evening on a recent South Bank Show - the one where Carol Ann Duffy was interviewed. When Melvyn Bragg asked her to comment on the lack of comment about her sexuality when she was made Poet Laureate, she said: "We're all a lot more grown-up in this country than we used to be..."

All a lot more grown-up. If only that were so. She's forgotten about the Church. Still mixed-up adolescents there, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Having a nosey

There's a newly-posted poem over at frankenstina. Written some time ago, it came to mind as I was playing around on Google Earth, seeing what of interest I could find on Street View. One of their camera points looks directly at our old house in Glasgow, and it felt extremely odd to look at how little it has changed in the years since we sold it (can it really be 5 years? More?). However, one thing the new owners have changed is the door - both doors, actually. For some unknown reason they've matched the neighbours in removing the panels (which were reinforced in steel plate by a paranoid owner during WW1, I think) of the Victorian storm doors and replacing them with glass. And they've obviously put in a modern inner door, with quite pretty glass as far as I can see, but have thereby lost the rather wonderful pale green bevelled panels of glass which were a feature of the original door.

I must admit to having ditched the identical Victorian storm doors in our current house, now replaced by a completely anachronistic and wonderfully insulated, draught-proof, double-glazed, all-singing-all-dancing door from Everest (ok - it neither sings nor dances; if it did I'd ask for my money back). I did it because even installing a lethal wooden door sill didn't stop the howling gale under the inner door even when the storm doors were shut, and I don't regret it for a minute. But I don't see why, if you have a modern inner door, and therefore no need to shut the outer doors during the day, you need light to come through said outer doors. And why, in the name of all that's aesthetically pleasing, paint it black with white highlights?

You'll notice, however, that the windows are still a tasteful green (I think it's called Buckingham Green). They are obviously unchanged from the way they were when I was but a child. This puzzles me, but I shall hold my peace, in a Shakespearian sort of way, and try not to think about how concerned I was about the state of the upstairs window frames just before we sold it. Maybe I was mistaken - or maybe it's a rolling programme.

And thanks, gentle Google, for letting me stare so.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Culture? Go to the bottom of the class

Today's Herald carries a big piece on the anger of the arts world at the philistines who rule us - triggered on this occasion by the "demotion" of Fiona Hyslop to the lowly business of managing the nation's culture. Iain Gray, the hapless Labour leader, has stupidly led with his chin on this one, but hey, he's saying no more than the news reports earlier in the week. It's official: Culture is way down the scale of importance when you're an ambitious politician, and I didn't notice Mike Russell hanging on to the post and regretting that his bum had barely had time to warm that particular ministerial seat.

But hang on. Education ... what are we saying about Education, here? You'd be hard put to it these days, if you dropped in from Mars, to know if culture was part of our educational system. What culture am I talking about? The difficult stuff, the stuff you need cultured, well-educated, well-read, thoughtful, skilled teachers to help you with; the stuff that knows there was culture before 1960 (to pick a date at random); the stuff that layers of knowledge and insight build on to create excitement and excellence.

I feel too similar to the excellent Malcolm Tucker to be persuasively coherent this gloomy, flu-ridden afternoon, an afternoon in which we've had to cancel a carol service because two out of the five singers were too ill to sing. Even that small drop of culture is all to often misunderstood: people seem to think that excellence just happens, like magic, because - hey, you've got gifts, you know, it comes easily to you. Rubbish. It comes now because people like us have spent our lifetimes working to sing better, to learn to sing stylishly and in tune, to produce the sound suited to the music, to be the very best we can at any given performance. And if nobody notices, if nobody really listens, if nobody knows the difference - fine. We do.

And that too is culture.

Picture from the BBC

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The last age ...

I was reminded this evening of how it is possible in the very old to see a sudden glimpse of the person as they must have looked in their youth. The wonderful Thora Hird in one of Alan Bennet's Talking Heads tonight suddenly looked much younger than she had, oh, decades earlier - something to do with the bones under the skin, the loss of the fleshiness that disguises us through our middle years.

I've noticed this before, in people I actually know, though it took a great piece of acting to make me acknowledge it. Shakespeare, I think, must have seen it too - think of the Seven Ages.

And now I'll begin to worry if someone tells me I'm looking younger ...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sounds of the past

It is often said that smells are among the most evocative stimuli, but as I languished in what might well turn out to be the embrace of swine flu I've been thinking about sound and its power to conjure up the past. It began with the sound of my own teeth, chattering. As I curled up in a vain attempt to get warm, that first, shivering night, I could hear them, galloping away in a parody of cold, and the part of me that stays dispassionately aware giggled, somewhere, and remembered ... Scooby Doo.

I have not the least idea if Scooby Doo still appears on the telly, but when Mr B and I first set up home in a relatively bijou flat in Hyndland (red sandstone kid to the last, me) we had the telly in our living room. Actually, that first year we had most of our furniture, other than the bed, in the living room: we couldn't afford to put more than the piano and a bookcase in the large front room until the following summer. This was the first time I'd ever been in the same room as the telly in the early evening, and I used to put it on to keep me company as I learned to cook. (Sorry - read "made the dinner" there). And so it is that the chattering of my own teeth took me, via the chattering of the scared S.D's teeth and the sudden memory of the theme music, back to the time when I worried in case I'd spent too much on meat that wasn't going to last two days and thought that every evening meal should include a pudding.

Lying abed the following day, thinking of nothing at all, really, I suddenly recalled the time when I found myself at a loose end in my own house at the start of my first maternity leave. This was a strange limbo, really, as we were contemplating a move to Dunoon at the time as well as expecting a baby, and two things stand out as markers for memory. One of these is not sound but taste - the taste of Old Jamaica Rum & Raisin chocolate - but the other is the sound of the music that introduced an early afternoon TV programme - Crown Court. I recently discovered it was real music in its own right, for I heard it on Classic FM and it had a name all of its own which Mr B could doubtless supply, were he to hand, but to me it is always two o'clock in 1974 and I'm at home waiting for my first child to arrive. Tatatatatatatumtumtumti...tatatatatatatumtumtumti pom pom....

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Linguistic delights

A bright moment in the midst of the flu-induced gloom which currently swamps my life. An editorial by one of my offspring of which the opening sentence was so beautifully constructed as to belong to an earlier age sent me into paroxysms of maternal delight. Further investigation revealed that there was, in fact, an element of parody involved.

Further explanation of this would be tedious to most and baffling to many, but a chosen few of my readers will understand why a Johnsonian turn of phrase in one's offspring brought a tear to the maternal eye and redeemed an otherwise dreary day.

And now I must desist before my own writing takes on the elements of an 18th century essayist ...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Party time!

This (mercifully) blurred, phone-camera pic shows a kiddies' party in full swing. Actually, it's a first birthday party. The birthday boy's face is strangely lit, which may show another camera homing in for a flash shot, but what amuses me about this moment is the fact that the adults are all wearing the small animal masks, all singing like billy-oh to the lead of the Caterpillar Music lady, while the assembled tots do their best to crawl from the centre of the circle or look totally bemused at their hitherto perfectly sensible parents.

Perhaps it was the Cava, perhaps the excellence of the leadership, or perhaps the fact that Birthday Boy Alan, one year old today, actually maintained not only his cool but also a pleasant smile throughout the entire proceedings - whatever the reason, I found myself really enjoying this party. From the tot in the designer dress and glam black tights to the tiny baby, all of 4 weeks old, who slept impassively throughout, there were no wails, no frayed tempers, and no misdemeanours on the part of either kiddies or parents.

But I shall not readily forget the sight of Mr B struggling with the hand movements in Incy Wincy Spider. Maybe he should stick to providing the harmonies ...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The mouse's tale

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. And if you're old enough to remember where that opening comes from, I trust you're enjoying retirement. But à nos moutons - or in this case, nos souris.

Once upon a time, there was a small mouse. He - or was it a she? - might have been called a church mouse, except that he never made it to the church. No, this little mouse lived in the Rectory, in a small room under the stairs that had once been referred to as The Bishop's Bedroom but had, since the days when the hapless Bishop indeed slept there, become a dump. As the person who lived in the house gradually dumped more and more in the way of unwanted debris in this room, the little mouse found it a refuge, though there was always the dread, the flaring fear, induced by the Rectory Cat.

The joyful day dawned, however, when the Rectory Cat set off with its owner to live in a rather less damp environment, and the little mouse was free to roam and to breed and to enjoy the crumbs left by the parishioners who had returned to using the house as a hub for social activities. Free, that is, until it became apparent that the old junk was going to have to go, to make way for the junk of the next incumbent - or even, Heaven forfend, a visiting bishop. And so it came about that a hard-working and selfless couple turned up one dreary day and put all the junk in their car and took it to the tip.

A few days later, the selfless lady noticed that a packet of biscuits, left in the car against a peckish moment, had been nibbled at. Her equally selfless husband denied any snack attacks, and their suspicions grew. Eventually they found a tiny nest in a corner of the car, under a seat where no-one would look. They did not, however, find the mouse.

Several suggestions have surfaced among the faithful as to how to deal with this phenomenon. It was thought that a cat in the car could be messy, and might damage the upholstery; poison or a trap seemed likewise messy and distasteful. To date the most enterprising seems to be a trip in said car to the incumbency of the former inhabitant and the former Rectory cat.

After all, it is their mouse.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Change ... but no decay, yet.

We've got the decorators in at the moment. The contents of our biggest room - except for the piano and the harpsichord - are crammed into the spare room, the stairs (each step a bookcase), the landing (where I keep walking into a sharp-cornered carry-box full of pictures). We've discovered that the gable end is bone dry (cheers) and today I've been relieved to find that the paint I chose for the walls is indeed a pleasantly warm neutral shade and I won't have to sell the house after all. So far so good.

But stripping your house back to the basics reveals much of what has been before. As a Victorian semi, the original house had ceiling roses, picture rails, dado rails, tall fireplaces and panelled doors, and our bedroom retains much of what it must have had over a hundred years ago - even the fireplace, though we lack the maid to light our fire in the morning. Downstairs, however, is another matter. At some point in, I imagine, the 60s, the then owner succumbed to the desire for modernisation and DIY, with the removal of the ceiling rose from the sitting room and the covering of the panelled doors with hardboard - remember 'flush panelling'? - and plastic lever handles. (I suspect that the dado and picture rails went earlier - you can still see their brown varnish outlines on the plaster.) We removed the hardboard from the doors in the '80s, though not before we'd lived with their white glossiness for 10 years or so. It was fortuitous that at that time we were able to use the resulting sheets of white board to make the most wonderful CND placards of varying shapes and sizes and outstanding durability for our usually rain-soaked demos.

So every panelled door had its silver lining, though we cursed the imbeciles who had roughly chiselled off the original mouldings to accomodate the hardboard. We put new mouldings on the doors, or simply painted over the ruination. We ripped down the hardboard pelmets above the windows. Now we can see what was previously hidden - that someone had also ripped off the facings of a cupboard to create a tasteful alcove with gently curved top trim and painted its interior a strange violet colour. (Evidence suggests that the body of the room was green at the time. With a floral pattern.)

We've found a wooden plug in the wall, which had left a bump we'd always wondered about. It's above head height, in the middle of the wall facing the window. I imagine perhaps a dresser with a tendency to topple, steadied with a nail into the wood. I imagine a Victorian family, down from Glasgow for their holidays, with the range in the back room which would be the kitchen, the sink in the window, the cludgie in the back garden and the wash-house where we park the car. In the main bedroom there are still the wooden supports for an extra bed in the walk-in cupboard, though heaven knows who would sleep there. It's our house, but there are ghosts ...

Today we've put back the ceiling rose in the sitting-room. It's not really big enough - the one in the bedroom measures 3' in diameter - but we'd have had to wait too long for the bigger one to be delivered, and the slightly lesser one looks jolly good and matches the cornice quite well. The ceiling is painted, and the walls half done with the first coat - enough to tell me how it will look. The painter pronounced it 'warm and light', which reassured Mr B, and I'm already wondering if we should replace the curtains or not bother. I might even move away from a paper globe for a lampshade ... but then, I might not. Change, yes - but not too much!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Things left undone ...

How often have you said something like I'll do that when I retire - that being anything from playing the violin to taking up tap dancing? And if you have indeed reached that apparent Nirvana, how much have you managed to accomplish of these long-held goals?

The two examples I gave are both things I've done in my time (and have to confess that the tap-dancing, though enormous fun, was probably a bad idea as I was well past my best and seem to have jiggered my toe joints permanently with the combined effect of vulgar little shoes and percussive steps). I always hoped that when I was no longer teaching I'd find a few like-minded souls to play with - not really wonderful instrumentalists, but able to read well enough to have fun. I pictured myself having time to enjoy this on a regular basis, perhaps fortified with a small tincture. (This because on one occasion another violinist and I became so hysterical at the sight of ourselves sawing away in a full-length mirror that we were unable to go on and required more from the bottle that stood on the floor between us)

But I haven't done it in years. Nor have I written yards of poetry, nor have I studied a new language or even read enough serious literature, let alone theology. I get by on snippets of the last, taken on an ad hoc basis when there's a sermon on the horizon. So what's filling the time, and why haven't I been more disciplined?

Well, there's plenty. And though some of it is fun, some of it's plain hard work or undertaken out of a sense of obligation. This makes me wonder about my motivation - and I realise that actually I'm the same butterfly that I've always been. I can't be bothered to practise if I don't have a performance, I like to make music in company, I like to perform rather than to prepare. I won't persevere in reading something that doesn't capture my interest within the first hour, and I'm easily put off by jargon or convoluted argument or badly-handled syntax. I probably need to see the end of a task before I begin, and I become bored as readily as I did when I was 16.

So I may yet play the violin, but I'll not hold my breath. And I'm beginning to think I shall die without reading War and Peace. Sad, really...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let's elect a bishop (part 1)

Being a member of the Electoral Synod of Argyll and The Isles comes with its own particular challenges, not the least of which is the drive to Oban and back - wonderfully scenic in the morning light, but distinctly hard work as the gloaming descends and turns into darkness as you drive down Loch Eck-side, with its winding bends and strange cambers and the dark loch water waiting on your right-hand side...Anyway, I'm a bit bug-eyed with it all, but determined to get some thoughts down while they're fresh.

First off, I have to say it was great. Not because the seats were soft and the venue (the Cathedral) cosy, but because the chair (and fellow-blogger; never mind that he's also the Primus) was skilled and adroit and handled things in a way that made people feel valued. It helped too to have not only Bishop David, but also Bishop Mark (he blogs too) - not because they're bloggers, but because they remind us by their very presence that there's a province out there, and they can help us, and we're not as isolated as we sometimes feel.

We were reminded of our responsibilities - and also of the holiness of our task, which could also be seen as enjoyable. It was suddenly important for each of us to know (a) that we were supposed to be there and (b) in what capacity we were there. Someone asked why the process of electing a new bishop took so long; +David pointed out that it was because Canon 4* said so, but built, along with +Mark, a picture of precisely why such a thing cannot be rushed. If we want a prayerful person who is truly committed to his/her calling, we must be prepared to let such a person prayerfully and thoughtfully decide if it is indeed their calling - and the time suddenly isn't a very long one at all. We were reminded of the task of the Bishop - "to interpret the local to the universal and the universal to the local", and we were reminded also that clergy come in all shapes and sizes and variations with regard to training and background, and that past experience in parish life was a vital component.

We considered the strangeness of the "gracious restraint" under which the College of Bishops now operates in the context of the Anglican Church moratoria on consecrating bishops in long-standing same-sex relationships, authorising same-sex blessings and cross-border incursions by conservative bishops: the last appears to go on regardless, which makes me wonder why the other two should be any different, but that'll be me being simplistic as usual. It'll be a good day when we catch up with the secular world on this one.

The afternoon session gave us the chance to bring up stuff we wanted the preliminary committee to bear in mind. I did my usual plea for a bishop to have a good grasp of modern communications, but I also voiced the opinion that we mustn't think a church is failing simply because it has not managed to attract any young people. The young people in my life who were in church all through their formative years now don't darken the door; they haven't lived in the diocese since they left school. Someone disagreed with this, but as this is my personal space I can now come back and say that young Piskies for the most part don't end up stacking supermarket shelves as a full-time occupation: they leave for the bright lights and never return. The people we tend to attract are older, moving to the country/seaside for lifestyle reasons, perhaps thinking more seriously on life and death than ever before - and finding our churches a suitable place in which to think such thoughts.

I don't intend to cover all that was said today. Instead, I want to make another point of my own: in a diocese where so many lay people have, through necessity, become preachers and intercessors and worship leaders, we need a bishop who is sufficiently sure of his/her own personality, faith and theology to be stimulated by our willingness, willing and able to support and cherish us, and to lead our existing clergy into a joyous partnership with the laity. +David called for "careful, eyes-wide-open" leadership. +Mark warned us to avoid asking a bishop to do it all - to think instead of a shared ministry.

So that's it started, this process. The nomination forms are available online and in publications, the preliminary committee has more thinking to do, more selecting, before we can see any candidates. Now, I must print myself a copy of Canon 4 ...

*Canon 4: governs the process of electing a bishop; prone to being used recreationally when the General Synod is under-occupied. (They alter it)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Berlin Wall remembered

A last, foolish, personal, wandering memory about the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, I was running the school magazine, The Pupils' View, of which No.1 son was the editor. (No, he involved me - not the other way round). We were blessed with the help of an art teacher who had a gift for wild drawing of the type just made for magazine covers, and with the creative genius of said No.1 son. And so it was that the edition that Christmas had on its Santa-decked cover a free gift: a piece of concrete, about the size of a pea, supposedly from the Berlin Wall.

Now, I don't know how many gullible infants were convinced by the authenticity of this, though I do know that I heard no-one actually question it. But I have the most vivid memory of two girls, one of whom at least was extremely elegant and beautiful from an early age, sitting on the step of the Techy building, both wearing safety goggles, both wielding hammers, battering a lump of concrete from our drive-in (which is still in a state of disintegration) into small particles. 600 of them. An army of minions then solemnly sellotaped a piece onto each magazine, and off they went...

Get it only in the Pupils' View! Your very own piece of the Berlin Wall!

I knew there were things I missed about teaching ...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Huvtaes galore

My pal Kenny's been blogging about having a day off work, coinciding nicely with my thoughts today on what to some must seem like a life of days off - this retirement business.One of the things I joked about missing when I first stopped work was the absence of a proper "sickie" - because if you're not staying off work because you have a bug of some kind, there seems little point in actually taking to your bed for a day. No, you just slope miserably around doing things in a half-hearted sort of way that doesn't seem all that different from normal life - not the same thing at all.

But more seriously, now that I'm on my 5th year of retirement I've realised that there are people who retire properly and people who seem to miss that particular boat. I'm one of the latter group, as is Mr B. There are people who retire and find themselves without a single obligation in their lives - not a single "huvtae" to impose a deadline or produce a modicum of stress. They do what they like when they want to, and don't give it a thought: they're retired, after all. And then there's me and people like me. Ok, a lot of it's church - and I'm not talking just turning up on a Sunday. And it's not actually religious faith putting on the pressure - it's people, and the need not to let them down, and the difficulty in saying "no". Perhaps the tasks and obligations look interesting, fulfilling, even, so you say "yes" - and suddenly your life takes on the familiar structure where there are no weeks where you can see clear space of more than a day at a time.

Add to that any little job related to your past life that you take on because you know you can do it and it might be fun and anyway it'll pay for that new suite you've rashly ordered. It turns out to have a deadline and suddenly you're rushing home at 4.30pm to get a couple of hours' work on it before, domestic goddess that you are, you produce a wonderful meal. (The DG bit keeps cropping up, by the way, just as it always did when you were working - it's just that you thought you'd have more time for it and you don't)

It was, however, pointed out to me today that I'd probably be bored if I had no huvtaes. I have, after all, chosen my burdens - most of them, anyway. So I'll just carry on singing and writing and planning concerts and writing exams and blogging and preaching and attending synods and running discussion groups and performing in workshops and ... and ...

And I'll enjoy my holidays, which will still feel like holidays. And I won't ever know what boredom feels like.

Slip of the tongue?

A wonderful, poignant moment at this morning's Remembrance Sunday service. One of our few old servicemen went out to stand at the altar during the two minutes' silence, waiting to take the wreath out to the churchyard where there is a war grave, of a serviceman who died in 1918. After the silence he spoke the usual words - only this year we all heard him say: "They shall not grow cold as we who are left grow cold".

Dead right too. The heating hadn't gone on in time to make much difference, and someone had left the door to the tower open so that any heat was vanishing as quickly as it was created. The miracle was that no-one so much as sniggered. Guess we were all so cold we didn't really think about it till afterwards.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Nectar from New Zealand

I don't think I've ever blogged before about wine. But that's not to say I don't think about it, don't enjoy wine - and I dare say I'm well on the way to being more than a little fussy about the wine I drink. The last couple of nights - in fact, I think it was the last three nights, as we're being pretty abstemious these days - we've enjoyed simply one of the best whites I've tasted. So here's my shout-out for a wonderful New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: Esk Valley 2008, from Gordon Russell of Marlborough.

I can't really bear to go off into a wine-buff's rant, but this was a marvellously fresh, layered taste, with fruit and citrus and a wonderful aftertaste that reminded me of my fave champagne. We bought it in a special offer from Laithwaites, the mail order company we've had our wine for from as long as I can remember. Not that we mail them any more - in fact, they phone us up periodically for a little chat, like old friends.

And that's that. A brilliant wine from a company who've never let us down. And no, I'm not getting any buckshee bottles for saying so.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Apostrophe Disease: a remedy?

I rejoiced at the discovery today of a web page dealing humorously and effectively with the use of the apostrophe. I've blogged before about apostrophe disease, but then I was inspired by a piece on typography. This new discovery, tweeted by @nmcintosh, actually makes a wonderful stab at setting down the rules and using illustrations and jokey examples (I do not =* don't like putting honeybees in my underpants) to drive them home. The site contains other examples of things you might have forgotten - like all the stuff you need to pass your driving test - and maybe it's ok for the apostrophe to join road signs: linguistic road signs?

Of course, every teacher knows you can have a riotously jolly lesson in which everyone has fun learning about whatever bee currently inhabits your bunnet (as distinct from your underpants) but seems to have forgotten the point of the exercise the next time they have to use the bee (if you get me). And maybe this would have no greater success. But it's a valiant effort and a good reference point the next time someone's struggling.

And struggle they will - it's the surest thing in written English that the most unexpected people will exhibit the symptoms of apostrophe disease. But at least we don't have to reinvent the wheel any more.

*I really need to put an arrow here, but have lost the will to work out to how to. Anyone?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pipe to the spirit ...

Thought I'd join the hymn fray before it's all over bar the singing ...

It's harder these days to find hymns that I can bear to sing, actually. The big, ponderous hymns that we used to bash out regardless leave me cold, even if they have wonderful tunes, as some of them do. Maybe too much exposure to them is part of the problem - they're boring after the nth repetition. So even Come Down O Love Divine (to Down Ampney) feels like a drag these days, and in a way that makes me sad. Part of the problem could be that it's not the same sung by half a dozen people with the rest a gentle murmuring in the rear - a proper choir at least gave me the pleasure of balanced harmony and colour as we sang.

I used to be thrilled by Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy). This hymn was completely new to me when I first encountered the Episcopal church, in the cathedral on Cumbrae, and is forever associated for me with firsts - incense, communion, the sense of the holy. I can still feel the hairs rise when we get to the alleluias, and the imagery is so poetic that there is little sense of the banal or the absurd. The same could be said for Lo he comes at Advent - I'd never heard it until I had moved to Dunoon, and it bowled me over.

Otherwise, I still find plainsong powerful. Ancient words tend to be timeless, somehow - the imagery so obviously not to be taken literally that I can just enjoy the poetry of it. I love Be still my soul and Lead kindly light, just as I love There is a Redeemer. I find the Taizé stuff we do a true vehicle for meditation and a way out of the ordinary, and I get the hair-on-end moments when we do Ubi Caritas with the solo verses as found in HON - especially if it's Bishop Martin or Mr B singing them.

But I'm at once fussy and fortunate. I rarely have to listen to inadequate organ playing, and I expect a high standard of harmonisation of last verses. If there isn't a decent musician around, I'd rather have said services than fight against flaccid rhythms or duff harmonies, and I've had enough Victorian bombast to last me an eternity. In the end heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter ... no?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Guising, anyone?

Hallowe'en. Guisers. None of your 'trick-or-treat' nonsense - that's American. Guisers had to go round in the rain and the dark and sing songs or recite a poem or be especially wonderfully dressed so as to elicit admiration and reward without the need to perform. Whatever you think is the right pursuit on this evening, I have never, ever done it.

When I was very small, we went out to friends in the next close (wally closes, if you're interested in such cultural minutiae) who hung treacle scones from the pulley in the kitchen and who dooked for apples both ways - the fork held between the teeth and dropped on the basin full of floating apples from the back of a wooden kitchen chair, or the whole head plunged recklessly into the basin to pick up apples with the teeth. My mother always opined that our hostess had the advantage as she had none of her own teeth and the false ones (we didn't call them wallies, we who lived in wally closes - too vulgar) were stronger than my mother's real ones. It was an occasion for much mess, much wet hair, and considerable hilarity. We always thought the adults were having more fun than us, but perhaps they weren't drinking chilly orange squash on a chilly October night.

But I was never, ever, allowed to go out guising. In fact, I don't recall ever dressing up - though I do remember sending no 1 son out to school as a mini punk with green gelled hair (food dye and my gel) and no 2 son almost passing out under my mini cape (floor length on him) when he was Darth Vader because of the heat at a Sunday School party. (This in the days when there were children in the church). But they didn't go out round people's doors either.

And that is probably why our hall light is off and the door firmly shut, and why no 2 son has already Tweeted a dare to any hapless child to ring his bell tonight. Just shows you how conditioned we all are by what happened all these years ago.

I wonder if kids went guising in the blackout?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Calm restored. For now.

Well well. The Dunoon Observer appeared today with my piece over which the argument arose intact - complete with the "Ands" which a hapless sub deemed unacceptable. I must say I was pleased to see this; perhaps there are areas in which people are prepared to bend after all. I should jolly well hope so anyway.

Thing is, of course, when you teach in a small community, everyone knows who you are and what you do - and if stuff with your name under it starts appearing in a form which anyone you've taught would wonder at, then it's time to stop. In today's edition of the paper, for example, a swift skim discovered a split infinitive (I know - I'm old-fashioned), a singular subject with a plural verb and an example of the word "nice" in its customarily lazy usage.

But at least it's not under my name. Whew.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Voskresenije in Ayr

Went to hear my old friends Voskresenije last night - in Ayr, for they aren't singing in Dunoon this year. (The impresario is too busy helping to run the church in a vacancy, if you're interested). I think this was one one of their best performances in recent years: the appearance in their number of a counter-tenor made an enormous difference, especially in the beautiful "Lonely bell" song. I've not heard it so beautifully sung since the lovely Oleg was singing with the group.

Voskresenije is a fluid choir, like many professional groups. In fact, the only constant over the years I've known them is Anatoly Artomonov, the basso profundo from St Petersburg - and Jurij Maruk, their director, who spends his non-touring season hunting out new young singers to join him. It's a hard life, living out of a mini-bus for months at a time, sleeping in different houses, eating whatever their hosts choose to give them. Today they were going to be driving to Skye to sing, before heading back down the country to be in Glasgow on Sunday. I hope I'll be able to have them back in Dunoon next year - they lift the spirits as the darkness descends.

It was great to hear them again. Look out for them singing in a church near you...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

House style in the sticks

Urged on by Tim, I was going to blog about hymns. But the grim weather has turned my thoughts instead to the irritation caused by our local rag, the redoubtable Dunoon Observer (and Argyllshire Standard, if you're feeling long-winded). Every second Sunday, more or less, I bash out an account of the service at Holy T, just to remind people that we're still alive, so to speak. I landed this job, along with Mrs Heathbank, because "you can write". And usually, my copy appears more or less as it left my Mac.

But not, it would seem, this week. This week my usual contact, a journalist to whom in the distant past I taught the odd thing, is on holiday, and I was mailed by another. This other informed me that as well as cropping my headline (not unexpectedly) he had "altered a couple of grammatical errors". Dear reader, I felt the blood pressure rise. Tell me, I requested, what you regard as a grammatical error. Back came the mail. It was not, after all, a matter of grammar. He apologised for that. No, it was a matter of "house style". Apparently all who write for the paper, paid or not, have to adhere to this. (First I've heard of it) From this, no contributor, it seems, may be allowed to stray. And that includes beginning a sentence with "and".

Whether or not I shall bother writing for this publication again remains to be seen. But am I being horrid when I find it hilarious that a paper which abounds in comma-splice and other linguistic unpleasantness talks about "house style"? But maybe I've got it. Maybe I need to go back a bit. How about this kind of thing:

Mrs Blethers, in giving her vote of thanks, expressed her gratitude to all who had given so freely of their time and talents to make the event so successful. It was agreed, as the congregation wended their way home, that a good time had been had by all.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Backward in Fear?

Having an extra hour on a Sunday morning gives time to think about what we do - on Sundays, for sure, though not exclusively - when we go to church. Having spent yesterday with a former Moderator of the kirk (great crack, Andy - and a great lunch), having listened, interminably, to the news on the car radio about the defecting Anglicans who are tempted by Rome, and having been Sponged the previous day, I'm feeling particularly turbulent this morning. There. I just asked Mr B how watching the Forward in Faith* people on the telly (somehow even more disturbing) made him feel, and I've just summed up my own reaction: turbulence just about does it.

The rotten thing is that much of what these people (no women priests, certainly no women bishops, no openly gay men) do in their religious practices used to be attractive to me. I still love really good music, incense, order - but I abhor the smugness, the "I'm a man and I'm ordained and you, my dear, are not in my league at all when it comes to the worship of God" underlay, the willing piety of the permed ladies, the self-righteousness. And on this grey Sunday morning I contemplate the essentially man-made edifice that is the church and I despair. I despair partly because I know that all my non-Christian or non-church friends and rellies probably think that what was on the news yesterday was my church and either despise or pity me for it.

But thankfully, it is not my church. My church still has a way to go before it sorts out the Christ-like response to gay Christians, gay church people, the gay ordained; it has yet to elect a woman as bishop though there is no legal barrier to such an election; my church tends to be anything but smug though there are pockets of undeniable smuggery. Personally, I'm on a wee crusade to remove the words "us men" from the Creed as said by the celebrant in Holy T (they don't say it in Southwark Cathedral, I note); Mr B is working to remove the dire hymns of the past from our repertoire (leaving us, it has to be said, with a very small selection that meet any sort of criteria at all); I look forward to this morning's sermon from a lay woman that will disturb and challenge in the light of the week's news.

But there is much to be done before we shake off the bigoted and the entrenched. And yesterday's news, as far as I'm concerned, is good news. Let's wave them off to the diluted form of Rome to which the Holy Father invites them. God speed, folks, God speed.

*Or, if you like, Backward in Fear.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sponged, again

Yesterday evening I was in a packed church - and St John's, Princes Street is quite a size to pack - to hear Bishop Jack Spong talk about the difficult subject of eternal life. Difficult? From my early teens I've realised how difficult, when my father used to quizz me: what kind of eternal life did I envisage? Would I fancy it as a spotty adolescent, or would it be more like an eternity of arthritis? He knew, and even then I knew, that these were facetious questions masking an uncomfortable reality - Richard Dawkins would have felt quite at home chez nous in the early sixties. And of course, it's the simplistic notions that the Dawkinites, and plenty of people who actually simply know very little about religion, keep insisting are the bread and butter of the Christian faith and any other you might care to mention. No wonder they dismiss us as daft. And no wonder we get fed up.

But Jack Spong had this crowd feeling anything but fed up, if the applause was anything to go by. He's just brought out another book: Eternal Life: A New Vision, and reading it would give you a better idea of his drift than reading this post. But a few bits stick: the God-filled man that was Jesus showing that the Kingdom of God was within him, and telling us that it is also within us; the living of a life of loving that aligns us with God who is timeless; the self-conscious humanity that is at once our original sin and our saving grace. And a joyous recognition of the impossibility of sharing our experience of God in words, in this question: Can a horse tell another horse what it means to be human?

The laughter showed the relief of those who had realised that the high and crazy and the low and lazy were not for them, and that sharing their own experience didn't fill pews. That's not our job, said the bishop in his wonderfully American way. We're not here to do that. The faith we hold is not to bring peace, but to help us to grasp reality and have the courage to go on facing it. It takes, he said, a lot of courage to be human and realise that we are finite - the whole nature of humanity is to be anxious.

In the end, I can't even redeliver this talk, any more than I can redeliver religious experience without resorting to art. But the realisation that there are so many of us - including people we met whom we know in more conservatively Christian circles - was thrilling. Our churches may be falling down around our ears, they may be populated by people of my age and older - but maybe that's as it should be, at this time. And for sure I came away with the conviction that if the church is diminishing, it should probably not moan about the failings of society.

It's time to take a long, hard look at our own failings. And then? I don't know. But it should be good ...

As Richard Holloway, winding up the evening, put it: we'd been well and truly Sponged. I recommend the treatment!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love's Labours Lost

Love's Labours Lost
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I know I've blogged about this already, but I needed to return to the experience of the Globe Theatre and Love's Labours Lost when I didn't have a cat's bottom distracting me by hiding the screen, to say nothing of the typing paws.

The thing is that in all my life I've only once been to a performance of a play by Shakespeare that I didn't know already, and that was so long ago that I have only the vaguest memory of it. (I think I was still at school, and it was at Jordanhill College and may have been As You Like It) And it struck me forcibly that much of what I get from a performance of, say, Hamlet, comes from anticipation and speculation: how will the Ghost be treated? How will they stage the prayer scene? How will Hamlet say the big soliloquies?

Think of the Olivier film of Hamlet. Olivier took a part of one of Hamlet's speeches about the King's behaviour and used it as a voice-over for the very beginning of the play, so that the words about "particular men" who, "carrying the stamp of one defect", "take corruption from that particular fault" and so is brought to disgrace. The whole slant of the character of Hamlet is changed by this, as he seems to be talking about himself in a way that would suggest he is very aware of why he is unable later on to kill his uncle - and yet his soliloquies show that he cannot understand his difficulties.

I've gone into that simply to show how very different the experience of a play is to someone who has studied it for years - and to wonder what Will himself would have thought of such a reaction. Maybe he'd have torn his hair out, maybe he'd have been puzzled. But it was fascinating to try to "keep up" with an unfamiliar play, without benefit of the text, and not find myself laughing at something several lines too late. I noticed an earnest fellow in the row in front of me poring over the text as the play unfolded - but felt he was missing more than he gained.

Enough. No more. 'Tis not so sweet now as 'twas before - and I've gone on long enough. The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: You that we; we this way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Change and decay ...

The new cell phone arrived while I was away. Actually, two phones - one for Mr B as well - and they came early despite my earnest conversation with the man from Vodafone to the effect that there would be nobody chez nous until yesterday. However, a neighbour signed for them and since last night they have sat, still in their packaging, on the sitting room floor.

Now it's midnight of another day and I've only just opened the box of one of them. It's very similar to my old one, with which I have been deliriously happy (that's hyperbole, but you get my drift), but longer and thinner. Whether or not this will be a good thing only time will tell. Apparently it has a better camera. And the one for Mr B is identical, which will be good in that he'll now be able to work mine if the need arises, but bad in that I can see one of us going off with the wrong phone.

But I realise that once again I'm on the threshold of change. And though I know that as soon as I start using it all will be well, right now I'm wondering why I have to change at all. My old phone - all of three years old, I think - is a familiar friend. And as yet they haven't sent me the promised recycling bag, so it will sit reproaching me as I set up its successor.

Maybe, after all, I am a dinosaur.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Master Byrd and holy smoke

To Sung Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral. And an excellent eperience it was too; not least because Mr B and I, freed from the constraints of being part of the machinery at Holy T, could sit peacefully together in the middle of the congregation and enjoy the seriously good choir (the setting was Byrd's Mass for five voices), a crisp and simple sermon and wonderful incense. Actually it was the combination of this particular incense and this particular music that took me back to when the Anglican church was a new and wonderful mystery for me; when something magical happened to me every time I was in church. Then, of course, I would have been singing the Byrd, but I was interested to note that it didn't matter to me that today I wasn't: the magic was there, in the other-worldly distance, and I was content to listen.

I've become so involved in doing church these days that I sometimes think I've forgotten what it's all about. I hold forth about not having to sit and listen to a choir sing the setting, that I'd rather we all joined in - but I'm talking poor choirs, not wonderful ones. I maintain that we can continue with our worship in the interregnum without the weekly presence of a priest - but I find myself sighing with relief at a beautifully conducted Eucharist, where there are no worries that someone will do something wrong, or forget what to do next. I can let go - and that, of course, leads to other barriers falling, and that is A Good Thing.

There were many good things to observe today - the sunlight streaming through the smoke halfway through the service, the lusty congregational singing (even if the man behind us had a very penetrating voice but a lamentable tendency to drag), the wonderful organ (especially when it let rip at the end of the closing voluntary), the very mixed, very large congregation. I felt safe, I felt part of it, I felt welcome - and at the end, we were welcomed by the celebrant, who admitted to favouring this particular incense because it was less likely than other varieties to make her cough.

And a few random insider observations: we all shook hands at the Peace - there was no grinning and bowing as has become the norm in the Diocese of Argyll in these pestilential times - but received in one kind only. And I was pleased to see that no-one, not a single server, be they never so sylphlike, wore a rope round his or her middle. Clergy and servers alike were decently and becomingly clad in albs which fell unimpeded to their ankles. (From this you may deduce that I abhor the alb as frock mode, hitched up with as much as 10 inches of leg/trouser/long skirt showing beneath it.)

And the notices were given decently and in order before the service began. This works. Oh dear. I fear my holiday may be coming to an end ...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Shakespearian evening

To The Globe last evening, to see Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. Quite an experience! Our already excellent seats were upgraded even before we could sit in them because there was a dirty big camera in front of them, and so we found ourselves in the best seats, in the very middle of the lowest seated area, behind the groundlings. They in turn were not just in front of the stage, as I expected, but were actually enclosed by two ramps which angled round in front of the main apron and were used by the the actors for sudden appearances - and by the deer which wandered in and out and died under the arrows of the Queen and her ladies.

I have to admit that I didn't know this play, and I was fascinated to experience it for the first time as Shakespeare's audienced did. How hard they must have listened! Or were some of them like Polonius (I do know Hamlet!) - remember, he's for a jig or a tale of bawdry or he sleeps? L'sLL is a torrent of verbal humour, in this production combined with a great deal of slapstick that had the audience guffawing. It all felt very Elizabethan, right down to the rigours of sitting on a wooden bench, even if we had been supplied with hassock-like cushions. And people did drink beer, though I didn't see any sellers of sausages (I believe they replaced the ice-cream lady in Will's day). And at the end we all applauded in time to the final dance-music while the cast jigged wildly on the stage, overcoming the gloom produced by the message of the death of the queen's father.

A fascinating experience, then, culminating in a headlong dash over the cobbles of Will's Bankside as we headed for the speedy train home.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Christie in a country house?

Having gone on about the storm brewing last night, I had to use this pic to demonstrate the hazards of life in these parts at this season - for are we not just out of the octave of the equinoctial gales? It was taken through the car windscreen as we sat on the Western Ferries coming home this morning, having forgone breakfast in our lovely hotel on Arran to catch the first ferry to run, just in case it was also the last.

But it is really of last night that I wish to tell. For after dinner, as we sat deep in squashy leather sofas beside a log fire, we were joined first by three jolly golfers and then by a couple from The South - all of us due to catch the ferry on the morn. I suppose it was the laptop that brought us together, as we could all see for ourselves the expected wind speeds on the met office site and the Cal Mac status reports. Mr B and I were modestly sipping espresso and nibbling the wonderful sweetmeats thoughtfully provided with it (just in case we perhaps had a tiny corner left), but the malt was flowing and the banter becoming more hilarious when we heard that the last boat of the day had been cancelled, and the first of Saturday, and the boat was lying overnight in Brodick. No-one knew if it would sail in the morning, and remarks like "It depends on who the captain is" did nothing to reassure.

It was, of course, typical Agatha Christie fare: the country house; the sense of isolation, of being cut off from the outside world; the contrast between the soft lighting and warmth and the howling darkness outside; the occasional interruption as some windswept traveller, gleaming with water, burst in at the door. One of our number would surely be dead by morning, in mysterious circumstances. Questions about occupation revealed a surgical instrument maker in our midst ... a banker ... an accountant ... surely there were sinister implications here?

Actually, no. At least four of us caught the first ferry together, having survived the night and the anxiety. But I caught no further glimpse of the Jolly Golfers. Perhaps they decided to stay and have that last game in the gale. I do hope so ...

Friday, October 02, 2009

Ancient Mariners again

Sometimes they get the weather forecast just right. And so it is today: they promised us gales overnight and into Saturday, and as I sit by the log fire in the hotel, after a wonderful meal, the wind is howling in the chimney and the talk is all of the cancelled Cal Mac sailings tonight and in the morning. And we're supposed to be leaving tomorrow afternoon. My attention keeps being drawn to the mutterings at the desk, where I can hear anxious conversations about trying to leave by earlier ferries, checking out at the usual time whatever, and I'm trying to concentrate on not fretting.

It feels strange being on such a large island and still depending so completely on Cal Mac ferries. I read in the Arran Banner today that Western Ferries are interested in starting a link here - what a Good Thing that would be. But we'll have to see what the morning brings. A guy in the bar has just opined that it's going to be a rammy in the morning.

Interesting, huh?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Still climbing after all these years ...

As I write, my legs moan quietly: were you wise? My feet feel ... stressed, and my knees, especially the right one, feel as if someone has put cotton-wool in where the cartilage was. And I don't care. Today - this morning especially - the sun shone, and from first light I could see Goat Fell above the woods round our hotel. I swear it was calling me. We had intended to walk the length of Glen Rosa, climb to the Saddle, come down again. Safer, really, in the light of the fact that we'd forgotten to pack the map I'd carefully looked out. Don't want to get caught mapless on the tops if the mist comes down ...

But the bright blue of this morning killed off these cautions, sensible notions, replacing them with the urge to be up there, among the grey rocks and the spase brown grass, the granite gravel and the peaty pools. And so it came to pass that we drove to Corrie, left the car on the shore road, and started up the relentless slope which leads you onto the hill at the White Water, on into the corrie, and up the last, lung-busting slope to the wonderful ridge that joins Goatfell to North Goatfell. By the time we got up - it took us a very respectable 21/4 hours - the wind was biting, bringing the temperature (11ºC at sea level) down to a level which had us piling on every stitch of clothing, right down to my Obama for President woolly hat.

But I cared about that as little as I cared about the sense or otherwise of this day. What I cared about were the deer that walked elegantly by as we ate our lunch - five lesser ones and a magnificent stag who stopped as I bleeped my camera open, posed haughtily, and trotted effortlessly off up the summit slope of N. Goatfell. What I cared about was the wonderful roaring of the stags, still obivously at it far below in Glen Sannox. What I cared about was the rough granite beneath my boots and the great view of the Arran peaks - Cir Mhor, the Castles - all slightly below me where I braced myself against the wind to take photos.

We took the downward path carefully, out of deference to the aging knees (balance the thought of the years knocked off them with the encouragement to "keep going" handed out by every medic we ever talk to). We were shocked by a sudden shot as we crossed the corrie, and I thought of another stag I had spotted as we climbed it earlier in the day and hoped whoever it was had been a good shot. We also hoped they wouldn't think we were anything other than tired walkers.

The whole day took us just over 5 hours - so close to the timings of our past that I felt ... well, smug, actually. A good late birthday present, to get up there where I first climbed 58 years ago and live to tell the tale. Life in the old legs yet, I'd say!

Note: Here be photos

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

All this, and Heaven too ....

There are some things we have to do in life which almost no-one else understands. My have-to is to return ever so often to the island of Arran, and once there, to walk up Glen Sannox - one of the most perfect glaciated valleys I have ever seen. Today, to mark my birthday, I did these things. And it didn't actually matter that every now and again the cliffs of The Saddle were hidden by drifting curtains of rain, nor that I wasn't actually going to climb these cliffs through the secret key - an eroded whin stone dyke through which my younger self has clambered to emerge triumphant on the broad slabs of the col between the glens Sannox and Rosa.

Right now I am enjoying the free Wi-fi in the bar of the fairly luxurious hotel where I'm staying, as the log fire glows and murmers beside me and the wonderful dinner I ate an hour or so ago begins to sink slightly. But as we walked down the glen this aftenoon, the bellowing and belching sounds of rutting stags dying in the purple and brown hillside on the far side of the burn, I reflected on how the natural ending to such a day would have been, perhaps, a boiled egg and a floury muffin with strawberry jam - or, more recently, spag bol and a slug of red from a winebox followed by the sleep of the just as the sun set and the telly muttered unnoticed in a holiday cottage. For I have been visiting this island for the past 63 years, and in all that time this will be the first night I have spent in a hotel, the first time I have not had to find the food at the end of a day in the hills.

And yes, as I mark the passing of another year (with champagne, and foi gras, and partridge, and free wifi, and Arran Aromatics in the shower) I think that I could go back to the days of boiled eggs and muffins - and being seven, and having all life to look forward to. But that would be incredibly sentimental, wouldn't it?

PS: Photos will follow on Flickr, but right now I'm too comatose to find my phone, and I don't have my camera lead with me ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Silver linings - or simply wet?

This post is for the people of the future. The people who have run out of water, if tonight's news on climate change is to be believed, or who find the temperature has risen by an absurd number of degrees. If they still surf old blogs, if someone has the perverse energy to research how people reacted when the acceleration towards global catastrophe began - this, my friend, is for you.

Because where I live, in this miserable corner of western Scotland, we've barely seen the sun for a week. Every morning we waken to grey skies, and on days like today we have rain drifting in curtains for hours on end. Sometimes it blows on a randomly gusting wind, sometimes it just falls. It's not cold, and it's not warm. It's just grey. And it grows dark absurdly early and when we waken to yet another grey dawn we feel there's no point in looking. We phone relatives - in the South, even in Edinburgh - and hear of long sunny days, BBQs in the garden, walks in the park. And from a recent trip to London I know that the sun shines there and that they actually could do with a bit of rain to clean the streets up and sort the garden out. And from flying home I know that up there above the grey there is brightness and blueness and ... and ...

Today I had to go to the shops in the afternoon. I put on my long mac and trailed about in deserted Argyll Street till I found stuff to take the smell of spilled diesel out of my washing machine (don't even think of asking. Read my tweets) The rain drifted the way it does on a misty mountain top, and there was no-one there. They were all in the comforting brightness of the supermarket, and they were all - all - moaning about the weather, about depression, about SAD coming early, about leaving town, about migrating, about holidays in the sun.

So, dear researcher, that's how we feel, we cloud-dwellers. We feel sad. Sad and damp and irritable. I have one bright spot to report, however:

I saw the moon tonight. It's gone again, but I saw it. Every cloud ....

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thought for the day

Now here's a thing. Take a small pisky church, inconveniently if picturesquely sited on a small hill at the very back of a seaside town (you've had this description before, but I need to re-emphasise certain features of the situation). Take a small but stable/growing slightly congregation which is in the limbo (known as interregnum by the optimistic and vacancy by the rest) caused by the translation of the former incumbent (not dead, merely departed). Take the gradual metamorphosis of some members of that congregation from pew-fodder to worship leader ...

So far so good. We like to see thoughtful and committed church folk taking responsibility for their patch, growing where they're planted and all that. But when the robed ones who on any one day are planted firmly in the holy end (Larkin's phrase, not mine) turn out to be two thirds of the people who actually (a) know the hymns and (b) can be heard behind the proverbial bus ticket ...

You get the picture. Today I felt I was a lone voice, singing away - and was, in actual fact, a lone voice in the post-communion hymn, despite the twenty or so folk behind me. But I enjoyed preaching about angels - maybe some of them had a wee song too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Captions and socks

I feel it only proper to direct readers of this blog to Mad Priest's place, where he has been running a caption competition on my pic of +Martin and Tigger. Do mosey over there if you want to have some fun with it; there are comments from everywhere, it seems, except Scotland.

I shall perhaps appropriate some of the comments for further consumption among the technophobes of Argyll - except, maybe, the one about the socks. I think the originator of it must be an American. Think suspenders - British ones.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est ...

It was my turn this week to write up the service at Holy T for the local paper. Thirty-one years ago in the same paper (oh dear - I must be getting old) I wrote of the institution of our new Rector, a young priest called Martin Shaw. There is a photo in the yellowing clipping of a grinning, bearded cleric as he prepared to embark on his first solo job after curacies in Scotland and England, and I well remember the excitement generated by his arrival. Today that same priest, sans beard, came to celebrate the Eucharist for the last time as Bishop of Argyll and The Isles. I've tried in my piece for the paper to give a flavour of the occasion, to put down some of the salient points of the sermon and so on, but this is what I'm writing for me.

+Martin has the power to light up a room, to stir even the most torpid of congregations to life. His preaching is as vigorous as it ever was, and has a tendency to get under the skins of his hearers even as they laugh at his preposterous jokes. He can switch from humorous to holy in a turn, and his singing (the solo bits in Ubi Caritas, if you're interested) makes the hair stand on end (and no - I don't just mean mine). When he left, after one of these bring-and-share lunches that make the feeding of the five thousand seem probable, there was the kind of flatness you feel when the bride and groom leave a wedding. It seemed too early for him to go, either from our lunch or his job as Bishop, and yet I was glad to see this day.

Why so? Because I thought that today there was a real feeling that "it is accomplished" - that a job had been done and it was in fact time to go. Far better to retire while you're still crazy enough to hug a stuffed Tigger (see left) and laugh at life, far better to enjoy a life where you don't - theoretically anyway - have to do anything. Martin's will be a hard act to follow, and I have no idea who will be his successor. But it would be good if it were someone who knew that there were never any excuses for his or her actions; someone who could laugh at him or herself; someone who knew his or her own failings. And it'd be really, really good if they could sing too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Roman excesses in the Dome

See the things you can do in London? This is one of them: a night at what I still think of as the Millennium Dome but which is now called The O2 to see Ben Hur Live - and yes, it was the story, much condensed, and yes, there was a real chariot race which hadn't actually started when I took the picture here: this was the parade before the race as the crowd cheered as wildly as any Roman mob.

Having checked out the website and read a preview, I knew it was going to be a spectacular event - I was thinking Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, maybe - but I was unprepared for the sheer scariness of it. To be honest, it was the horses: it took only the first prancing and slightly unruly beast to appear in an early sequence to bring the circus unpredictability into play, and it was immediately obvious how much power four horses have when hitched to a flimsy racing chariot. And all the right things were there - the wheel coming off one of them; the luckless driver being left in the path of the oncoming beasts; Messala being dragged round the arena when his team parted company with his chariot. All except the knife blades on his wheels - I suppose that might have gone a tad far in these chicken-hearted times.

And the noise was immense. I am a sucker for the kind of music where the bass makes the seats vibrate, and some of the music the other night was on the point of deafening. My ears were ringing and I loved it. And talking of ears: the main characters spoke in Latin and whatever appropriate language Ben Hur and co would speak - was it Aramaic? - and the narration, in English, filled in the synopsis. Clever, I thought - the authentic touch, easily exported to any arena by switching the language of the narration. And the joy was that I could understand the Latin, so sat smugly while the woman behind me went on and on about not understanding a word.

A truly Roman sort of night, really - over the top, loud, violent, scary, totally ridiculous, in a huge arena in front of a huge crowd. Caligula would have loved it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Singing to God

Read this the other day and couldn't resist sharing it. It's from a commentary on the psalms by Augustine.

'Sing to God a new song, sing to him with joyful melody.' Each of us tries to discover how best to sing to God. We must sing to God, but we must sing well. God does not want his ears assaulted by our discordant voices. So sing well, my brothers and sisters, sing well!

If you were asked: 'Sing to please this musician,' you would not dare to do so without first having had some music lessons, because you would not want to offend such an expert in the art. An undiscerning listener does not notice the faults that an accomplished musician would point out to you. Who, then, offer to sing well for God, the great artist whose discrimination is faultless, whose attention notices the minutest detail, whose ear nothing escapes? When will you be able to offer him a perfect performance so that you will in no way displease such a supremely discerning listener?

Augustine goes on to tell us that in fact we should be bursting out with joyful song like harvesters in the fields, and I can't help feeling that this is a somewhat naive picture - can't help thinking of all these sore backs and aching muscles and the harvesters too exhausted to sing. But there are days when I think of poor God with his fingers in his ears.

Cosmically speaking, of course.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cut flowers - for Ruby

And when they laid that rough-cut board
across your grave and on it flowers,
flowers on flowers against the grass,
lilies, roses and unnumbered blooms,
their sweetness on the solemn air
was like your presence in a room
and that was when the knowledge grew
that we had lost that smile to God
and tears came, and the rueful look:
The Gardener of our souls had passed
that way, had found you on his path -
and we who wait remembered there
another blossom picked to make
the company of Heaven glad.

© C.M.M. 9/09/09

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Recollected in tranquillity

I've spent the last two hours singing the most beautiful music, practising for a gig on Sunday when the St Maura Singers celebrate their 40th year of singing together. The concert is part of the Music for a Summer Afternoon (summer!) series in the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae, where we first sang together, and we shall be revisiting some of the music we sang then as well as two new pieces - new to us, and fairly recently composed for Cappella Nova - by John McIntosh. These last, in 5 parts, are possible because our current quartet will be joined by our original soprano, as well as an extra bass who goes back to our University Chapel Choir days, so it should be quite a reunion.

But all that is by way of introducing what actually drove me to post this, for two of the pieces brought home to me how much I have changed in my reaction, not to the music, but to the words. I could barely get through Tomkins' When David Heard - these repeated "Oh my son, my son" lines can never be the same, I think, to anyone who has a son. It took all my willpower to focus on purity of line and phrasing, the need to express the abandonment of grief by the greatest of control - that paradox of the performer, really. And Lassus' Justorum Animae made me think of Ruby, a lovely lady, a Cursillista who died last week and whose funeral is tomorrow. I wish we could be singing these words over her, for although the Latin uses the masculine form throughout, surely if anyone's soul is in the hand of God Ruby's is.

Iustorum animae in manu Dei sunt, et non tanget illos tormentum mortis. Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori: illi autem sunt in pace.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Casting off

Laying down the staff
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Yesterday the Bishop of Argyll ceremonially signalled the end of his episcopate by laying his staff and mitre on the altar of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Oban. And with that sentence I lay aside any obligation to write sensibly about the event and free myself to blog as usual.

It poured, of course. It would seem unnatural this summer not to be scurrying through the puddles of Oban, not to be sitting in one's mac all through the service for warmth - or even, in the case of the unfortunate Dean, for protection from the rain which dripped on his head and his notes during the sermon. (And you wonder why they wear these big copes? Wonder no more). People had that windswept look - for there was also quite a gale blowing - that defies any attempt at glamour; there were two exceptions to this, whose photos appear on my flickr stream, but the rest of us had given up. Fleeces, trousers, cagoules - and these strange Masai warrior shoes which seem to have been taken up by the Argyll piskies, who will surely all be slim of thigh by the end of this dreadful summer.

The service was not without its hilarious moments. The ringer of the bell at communion may have broken his stays with his vigour (the obvious result was a coil of rope descending around him in an apocalyptic fashion) and the public address system had developed its own variety of flu and burbled alarmingly and at random. The Dean's sermon seems to have hijacked the Synod Clerk's farewell speech, so the latter improvised a variety of sermon which had us all - including the Bishop - on the edge of our various seats. The congregational singing was somewhat tentative - maybe in anticipation of a future without +Martin's wonderful voice - and we received communion in bread only, because we still, apparently, fear contamination from the flu.

That said, there was a great deal of illicit embracing at the end of the service, and a palpable sadness at the imminent departure of Martin and Elspeth. And yes, I too will be sad to see them go - but delighted to see another of my friends reach the sunny uplands of retirement and canter off into freedom. Thanks to +Martin's efforts, he is not, as Richard Holloway predicted five years ago, the last Bishop of Argyll, and we shall soon begin the process of looking for his successor. But take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again. Quote, anyone?