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?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dark skies over Dunoon

Dark skies over Dunoon
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Another gloomy morning, the kind of day when getting on with it seems pointless and the book you're nearly finished (Pat Barker's Life Class) calls you to the red chair under the light. I would say I was depressed, but it wouldn't be true, for in depression books have no charm. But I am reminded of wet days in Arran, scene of my summer holidays from the age of 9 months until fairly recently (and I'll be there at the end of this month).

The house we rented every year had a cupboard at the top of the spiral staircase, watched over by two wally dugs - these china spaniels of unsurpassed hideousness. In the cupboard were two shelves of the most strangely-assorted books, among which I burrowed. By the time I was fourteen or so I must have read Dreadnoughts of the Dogger eight times, although there were also paperback Westerns and a hardback copy of The Flight of the Heron. (Does my younger son ever wonder where his Christian name comes from?)

And I used to welcome days like today, days when it seemed unlikely that we would be out for more than a few hours, days when I wouldn't be summoned by holidaying friends -"Is Christine coming out to play?" I would curl up on the step under the dormer window of the front bedroom and lose myself in the lost cause of the Jacobites or the adventures of Sea Scouts caught up in the naval activities of World War 1. I would be so far from the present moment that I would find it truly hard to join others in play, or even the family for food.

And that, of course, is the magic of fiction. Television, DVD, film - none of these has the same hold, the same secret lure to another world. I feel keenly the fact that as an adult I am no longer free to do this withdrawing from the world, and that as an online addict I have distractions which can prevent the immersion which is the true secret of enjoyment. And I shall never forget the time when I realised that being depressed - in my case post-operatively - stops the magic in its tracks.

The photo, by the way, somewhat contradicts the opening message of this post: this is the kind of sudden brightness that would signal the end of an afternoon's reading. I can almost hear my father's voice: drag yourself downstairs - the rain's off!