Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Traditional and effective

The photo accompanying this post records one of these satisfying grandmother moments. I'd been holding Anna (4 weeks old) in the hope that she would drift off to sleep, but she didn't appear to be able to settle. Perhaps her sister was too interesting, or she just didn't want to miss out, but she was tired and scratchy and it was obviously time for the Wise Woman to make a reappearance - and sing.

I've written of this before, when I was singing to that lively three-year-old in the background (can't help feeling it wouldn't work now, but I'll return to that). This time I sang another lullaby, Watts' Cradle Song, to an American (I think) tune arranged by Mr B for our women's choir, 8+1. The melody is in the alto range, and I've had it on the brain for the past few weeks. The words were somewhat random , as I'm hopeless at remembering them, but phrases like "here's no ox about thy bed" seemed suitably soothing, and after gazing intently at me as I sang, Anna's eyes drooped and in no time at all she was sound asleep. She was sitting in this upright position, too, so the sense of communication was very real - until she flopped. I continued singing quietly as I put her to bed, and that was that.

I can't stress how important I think this live singing is for young children. It's not the same when nursery rhymes, lullabies and so on are played on CDs or - worse - distorted by electronic toys. The vibration, the tailoring of volume to the moment, the possibility for variety - these all contribute to what is, after all, as old as the hills.

Incidentally, big sister still loves to sing - though she does give me a row for using the traditional words as the end of Mary had a baby. You can't please all the people all of the time ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve, differently

More history
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Traditions endure - and yet things change. Until a couple of years ago, Carols from King's was the background to my big Martha moment, making stuffing, cooking sausages, doing funny things with giblets. The house smelled wonderful, and there were either visiting family dotting in and out of the room or we were anxiously anticipating their arrival through whatever weather obtained at the time - though to be honest it was usually gales and rain. I would have spent the morning lugging a turkey home, depositing it in the shed to keep cool - not schlepping round the Bishop's Glen in the sunshine marvelling at the frosticles on every branch and wondering why I felt so strange.

Because I do feel strange. I find it disconcerting to be packing a suitcase and trying to remember shoes as well as boots (for the socialising, you know), to be stressing about catching the first ferry in the morning and hoping the fog doesn't return. Instead of looking tidy and prepared, the house is its usual slightly random self, with the addition of a Christmas tree (above) and cards on every available flat surface (another casualty of our straitened workforce; I lost the will to hang them on their holders). I'm cooking nothing other than tonight's dinner, and have a relatively empty fridge in anticipation of a visit to Tesco on the way home.

But first there's Midnight Mass, with incense, candles, carols, that lovely bit of Liszt on the organ, singing with other musicians - all the things I love and which keep me here when I could already be relaxing with my family. I shall not feel as joyous rising at 7ish when I've been in bed well after 2am; hence this moment snatched from organising myself to relax over a blether. But now I must make sure I've packed ...

Happy Christmas when it comes - and let's hear it for Western Ferries!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Controversial nativity?

I was looking for an illustration to this post when I came upon this story. Apparently the BBC production which has just ended, The Nativity, is being attacked as being anti-Jewish. I didn't clock that, but after wondering early in the week if this drama was going to work, despite the appealing casting of Mary and the atmospheric setting, I found tonight's climax extremely moving and well done.

I suppose the difficulty is that the story is so well known. How do you explore the characters of people who have been household names for 2,000 years? And we know the ending, don't we? How do you surprise and grip an audience with the best known story in the Western world? (I think I'm being careful here). In the end, I think they did it by concentrating on the humanity of Mary and Joseph, on Mary's extreme youth and Joseph's understandable misgivings. All these dreams - who among us wouldn't say "It was only a bad dream" and sulk off? Did you not find yourself begging Joseph to take Mary's hand as she begged him? Did you not sit up in your seat and will them to find somewhere to stay, even though you knew they would? Suffer through that labour in the filth of the stable? Smile "At last" as Joseph reached for Mary at the moment of birth?

There were moments that took me outside the circle of the drama: I couldn't take that quietly-spoken Irish Gabriel, and I wanted wings like drifted snow and eyes as flame, not to mention the heavenly host. I kept spotting Tucker under the admirable strength of one of the Magi, and I marvelled at the awfulness of Herod with his pale eyes and the ghastly sweating illness that perhaps Art Malik might have cured if he'd still been at Holby City. But these are the dangers of all dramatic production, and my willing suspension of disbelief kicked in with a vengeance tonight.

And I loved the gradual convergence of planets and star to form that wonderful celestial light at the critical moment, shining down into the mess and confusion of a shed full of troubled shepherds and men who had travelled such a long way. This birth was hard and bitter agony for us ...

Maybe the controversy arose because there is no way of telling this story and making it blandly acceptable to everyone.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


That blackbird ...
Originally uploaded by goforchris.

Having recently learned
the shocking truth that
birds lose something like
a third of their weight
overnight, I look at
the puffball shape of a
round robin with new eyes.
Go for it, little one,
I whisper, madly, at the window,
smile encouragingly as tiny tits
hurl themselves at the table
where this morning's food is
piled, tut when the blackbird
and his wife - a sturdy wench
in brown - spend far too long
over breakfast and leave the
shivering siskins on the bare tree.
The snowy garden is swathed in
fog as another day in the deep freeze
begins, and I, insulated from reality,
imagine myself St Francis
and smile with fatuous fondness
as my small visitors struggle
for their very lives.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Amid the winter's snow ...

Closing voluntary
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Well, we were lucky. After yesterday's snow, yesterday's hypochondria about sore throats, all the cancellations of services seen on Twitter, Holy Trinity attracted between 50 and 60 souls to our Advent carol service. There was one missing singer, marooned in the hinterland by high, snowy, impassable roads, with the attendant sudden feeling of exposure at the bottom of the harmony as one alto carried the burden alone, but things could have been worse (not for the marooned singer, I suppose - I'm glad she's safe and Facebooking)

I love Advent services. I love the darkness, the restraint, the fact that it's not Christmas yet. I think I always felt like this, even in my heathen days when I didn't really know about Advent. And today underlined something else in the makeup of that feeling. For today could so easily have been a disaster, or cancelled. As it was, it felt precarious, something that might blow out in an instant, like a candle. As the candles on the strange wooden candelabra dripped onto the peace angels hanging under them, as the sopranos' pew candle guttered low in some unseen draught, as the singers in the middle of the group struggled to read their words in the growing dark, there grew this sensation of something at once very human and utterly other, something like a frail glass bauble that could break if you held it too hard.

It was wonderful that it happened, wonderful to see people from outside our small congregation piling in as the snow fell outside, wonderful to see the work that had been done in all sorts of ways to provide candles, the tree, the fabby mulled wine. (I had three glasses: very warming).

Not perfect, but wonderful.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Glasgow Royal cheers

It's snowing, inconveniently, but I'm not going to mention it again. Instead, I'm going to indulge in a wee paean of praise for the Plastic Surgery department at Glasgow Royal Infirmary - and no, I wasn't having cosmetic surgery. Just in case you ask. It was a very tiny bit of cutting and stitching that was required, though I suppose the resulting biopsy may lead to a further visit.

The great thing is that I'm not anything like as bothered by that thought as I was. The people I met there - especially Jim the nurse - couldn't have been better at mixing professionalism with the appearance of personal interest; the building was newish and therefore cheering; the atmosphere in theatre was calm and unthreatening. My face, having had any vestiges of moisturiser swabbed off it, was swathed in drapes, so I couldn't see anyone, but I was able to listen to the instructions as someone practised tiny stitches on my temple (I never thought of the bit in front of my ear as the temple, but there you are) and join in the discussion about how difficult it was to explain the difference between a granny knot and a reef knot. (To be honest, I think the instructing surgeon was better at surgery than language - it was my idea to call it a granny knot when one stitch had to be removed and redone)

Even the horrid sensation of the local anaesthetic was alleviated by the cheerful warning that it would be like a dental injection but wouldn't last, and by the discussion of the relative merits of the words "prick" and "scratch" in describing the sensation of an injection - apparently they worry about people's reactions to the former - and by the realisation that it worked so well. I was grateful for the fact that I was seen almost as soon as I got there (early: we were anxious about the black ice on the pavements and our ignorance of the hospital layout) and that it was still light when we finally escaped ... some lovely tea and a large chunk of carrot-cake in nearby Brewhaha. Very therapeutic - I recommend it. But let's hear it for the NHS - at least in Glasgow Royal.                  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another Advent poem

I've posted another Advent poem on frankenstina. I'm grateful for the commission that led me to write it, and hope that as the magazine in which it now appears (the SEC's lovely publication Inspires, which seems to me to grow in stature with each edition, my own contribution notwithstanding) is out in the public domain it is now all right for me to post the poem.

The idea of a recurring need in our deepest places – for warmth, for love, for reassurance – seems to me especially poignant and powerful in the last months of the year. As the days shorten after the equinox, this can be felt as a disturbance, a restlessness of spirit reflected in the irregular rhythms of the free verse of the opening section of the poem. This settles into metre to reflect the idea of this experience recurring every year through the ages, a sort of incantatory passage in homage to our Celtic ancestors for whom the coming of the light was in every sense such an important event.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A new look at Advent with a new birth

After a week of dead brain and frozen imagination, I've found the words to express how I felt when little Anna was born. You can see the result here.

But for readers who don't go for poetry, a word of explanation. I always find Advent incredibly special. The culmination of it all is of course the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve, but as with Holy Week and Easter, the preparation and participation in the whole journey is all. This year feels very different. The arrival of Anna on the day before Advent Sunday, on the first day of the snow that brought the country to a halt, seemed to bring an end to my anticipation, my waiting and longing, before it had even begun. It's inevitable, I suppose, that annual repetition and my own aging will bring a familiarity that might tend to dull the keen edge of the Advent mystery, but this birth and its timing meant that once more a mystical birth was replaced in the front of my preoccupations by a very human birth.

Now I have two Advent grandchildren - see this poem about Alan - it strikes me that the season may never be quite the same again. But maybe this is how it should be - because if there's one thing I've learned in all these years it is that you can't stand still or you turn into a fossil. And we can't have that, can we?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An old friend rediscovered

Have you ever spent years, on and off, looking for something, becoming convinced that a malevolent guest has nicked it, or that you somehow never had it in your house in the first place, and then discovered it lurking in plain view on the bookshelf where it ought to have been all along? No. Must just be me then. The book in the picture has eluded me for ages, and now there it lies. And why would you care, do I hear you ask? Therein lies my tale - or part of it anyway.

I grew up reading this book, this very edition. It's old (published in 1937), the cloth and card cover is frayed and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. It has a Glasgow Corporation Education Department stamp in it, but I never took it from a school - it must have been one of the many books brought home by my father to meet my insatiable demands for reading material in the days when I was always ill (and therefore stuck in bed) and devoured print voraciously. My most vivid memory is of lying propped up on one arm in bed in the tiny maid's room where I used to sleep (see post about winter, below) early on a Sunday morning, reading this and eating Pontefract Cakes. (I know - liquorice before breakfast. But it pins it down as a Sunday, for I was only allowed to buy sweets on a Saturday) The room in which I was reading means I was not yet 10 years old, for we moved house when I was 10.

So here I am, reading Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and its prequel, The White Company (set in the period after Sir Nigel but written first) not once, but several times, in my childhood. My relatively early childhood - probably eight at the first reading. I remember that I found Sir Nigel an easier read, but that may have been the size of the print - my copy of The White Company belonged to my mother, and was printed in 1930. But having just found it, I'm reading Sir Nigel again - and marvelling. For a start, I realise how much historical knowledge I picked up from these books - and the reader isn't spared the details, or the long description, or the mediaeval ballad sung by the hero. But the main boggle is reserved for the language. Here's a wee sample:
"I am no subject of yours, proud Abbot!" he cried at last. "My house has ever been vavasor to the king. I deny the power of you and your court to lay sentence upon me. Punish these your own monks, who whimper at your frown, but do not dare to lay your hand upon him who fears you not, for he is a free man, and the peer of any save only the king himself."

No wonder I grew up with a grasp of English that I never found in my pupils. "These your own monks"! Wow! And the complexity of the syntax - and I never questioned, never faltered, for I was caught up in the story and had already fallen for Nigel - and I'm only on page 54. And randomly, from page 307, I find the sentence: "Then it was he that I heard behind us". Not much chance of mixing up subjects and objects and the anomaly of the verb "to be" after that lot, was there?

I could go on, but life calls. I must just point out that what sent me looking for this was a summer holiday in the early '90s, in Benodet on the coast of Brittany. A wet day sent us driving inland in search of the sun. We found it - in Josselin. And the name tweaked at my memory, and sent me to the Michelin guide. Sure enough, the monument to the Bataille des Trentes - if you've looked up the first link, to Wikipedia, you'll find out about this - was close by. Actually it took some finding, being stuck between two bits of motorway down a narrow lane, but it was there, and I had never really known it was real. We looked, we came home, and I went hunting the book. I couldn't find it. I don't know why or how it has returned to my shelves, but I am glad to see it.

Right glad, in fact - the language is getting to me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On parenting, and further

I've borrowed this video* from Ewan because it has me and Mr B in it, doing what we did for the past couple of weeks: Grandparenting. You'll see our step is still quite sprightly - we were only on day 4 and neither had yet succumbed to the lurgie which subsequently befell us. And looking at it reminds me of the thoughts which swirled in and out of my consciousness during that time, and gives rise to the following reflection...

When you have a baby - and it doesn't need to be your first; the second merely re-awakes what came before - everything changes. You might, for insance,  do something totally crazy,  like moving house five weeks after the birth, selling your neat West End flat and taking up residence in a council house in Dunoon, hastily done over after the previous teacher moved out. A move such as this masks what might have happened anyway; I'm thinking of the impulse to comfort and convenience which has you buying a hideous pair of trousers (grey, with orange and black checks) merely because they have an elastic waist and don't need taken up (they seemed ok at the time because I no longer lived in the city and besides no-one knew me in Dunoon). I'm thinking of the effort it takes to wash, change, dress, undress, dress again your new infant, which leaves you too frazzled to do more than hurl an outer garment (only criterion: waterproofing) over your besmotered** top and aforementioned breeks before you heave the pram down the steps and hit the weather. I'm thinking of how suddenly it's ok to go our without a scrap of makeup on your face - something you haven't done since you were ... oh, fifteen? ... and sometimes without even moisturiser (a wee touch of baby cream, maybe?). Life contracts to a primitive level in which only the infant matters - and perhaps the food on the table to keep you, The Great Provider, topped up.

Ok, perhaps not every new mother lets herself go in such abandoned fashion. It took me years to get over the idea that I had moved to a seaside resort and therefore would never need to dress respectably again - maybe I never did. Get over the idea, I mean. Maybe the situation merely compounded a tendency that was already present. But while I was in snow-bound Edinburgh, being Super-Gran (ipsa dixit, I know), I  realised that I was in danger of doing it again. I wore the same pair of (warm, practical, techy fabric) black trousers every time I went out, and changed into the same pair of (warm, practical, supremely comfortable, soft techy fabric) trousers to be indoors. I had three other pairs with me that never saw the light of day. I rotated a trio of fleeces, and my jerseys and varied tops remained in the case. I washed what needed washed, and didn't think about what to put on. I didn't actually care. It might be midday before I realised that the tight stretchy sensation about my face wasn't a ski mask; it was my centrally-heated skin, drying out nicely because I'd been too busy making Peppa Pig and Grandfather Pig climb the side of the bath in valiant rescue operations of Little Brother George (blooming millstone that game turned out to be) to put on moisturiser - let alone warpaint. And suddenly it'd be dark outside again, and time for bedtime stories and an hour or so of stupor while Lord Sugar pronounced and fates were decided, and then we'd all stagger to bed again.

And that was before the addiction to Lemsip kicked in ...

*We were going to church (Spiky Mike's), BTW
** This word is found in Chaucer. I use it often. I'm not going to spell it out - you're an educated lot.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Change of face?

Goodness. That was exciting - and quite disconcerting. For a full 24 hours it seems I have been someone else, though it took a remark on the phone and ABF's comment on the previous post to alert me to the fact that I seemed to have turned into a Russian vocal ensemble, all without my noticing. How alarming. 

The explanation was annoyingly simple. I'd been setting up a new blog for my pal Jurij (he's not said if he likes it yet, so it may simply be strangled at birth) and had foolishly taken no steps to dissociate my own identity from it. Blogger didn't do this to me before - I already run two blogs, and to my knowledge I never appear as frankenstina - but the new Blogger is disturbingly more akin to Wordpress in its complexity (and no doubt in its flexibility) and strange things are happening. F'rinstance, the box I'm currently posting in doesn't look the way it always has - to the extent that I'm wondering if this post is going to arrive on the wrong blog. 

If it doesn't, and if I've reverted to my former persona, then all is well. But note to self: don't set up new blogs in the middle of a telephone conference. And don't work on them after midnight.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The anatomy of enjoyment ...

I've dragged myself away from the latest Kate Atkinson (Started Early, Took my Dog) partly in an effort not to gallop through it too swiftly (memories of childhood again: after the Saturday trip to the library I had to be careful to leave myself at least one book for the school week evenings), partly to note what I'm so enjoying in the process of exposition that I'm currently reading.

So - I note the skill with which the characters are introduced and are linked, like a flow-chart or the diagram of some organic chemistry process (very dimly recalled from school), as someone on the fringes of one character's observation becomes the focus of the next chapter, and so on. And I love the skill with which the necessary details are drawn in - the mental asides, the references to each character's past which give us just what we need to empathise, but never enough to bore with superfluity. I already feel I know two new people, as well as having a progress update on her recurring hero, Jackson Brodie (clever, that, to ensure that a newcomer to her books will know enough, without boring the afficionado).

And the writing. I now recognise what's going on - the fluidity of syntax which sits comfortably with the internal monologue that is part of all our lives, that conveys context and emotions, reaction and reasons. Much of it uses what in another context might be regarded as a spot of comma-splice, but it isn't: the stream of consciousness rarely makes mistakes but rather defies the rigidity from which in another life I fought to release my students.

Right. I think I'm about to have another Lemsip and read some more. But can I share one final joy? I'm reading the book in hardback (it was a gift) - and it has its own silky attached bookmark, like the ones in a lectern bible. How civilised is that?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ghosts of winters past

Pretty, innit? Snow on Newhaven Harbour, with the Forth Bridges in the distance. A good cue to get me started, as the Forth Road Bridge was closed for a time last week because of snow/ice/not-gritting-lest-the-bridge-is-corroded-by-salt. Now the country is closed, it seems - all these poor souls stuck on the M8 yesterday, and perhaps still as far as I know. Could have been us, too - but we left Edinburgh on Sunday, when the road was absolutely clear. Someone loves us ...

But to my theme. It's obvious why yesterday's terrible stramash happened: people rose early for work, as the world now seems to do, saw that it was dry - and set off. When they were on their way, strung along the ends of the motorway or whatever, the snow began. Someone jack-knifed; they all ground to a halt. Result: blocked road. Gritters couldn't get along it. No point in whining that folk ought to have stayed at home, as several moaners did on Radio Scotland this morning. They didn't have the choice when they set out. Perhaps the gritter moguls should have trusted the weather forecast and sent the lorries out early - but that's easy to say now. Besides, it was apparently too cold for the salt to have much effect - certainly the bit of path I spilled water on while emptying a basin (our waste pipe was frozen) is now a sheet of ice, despite my immediate application of salt at the time.

I don't remember this massive disruption from my past. I do remember fierce winters - for heaven's sake, I can just remember a morning when we had a coal briquette in the range surrounded with potato peelings*, in what must have been the winter of 1947 when the pipes in the tenements all froze and people had to use stand pipes in the streets. I can remember being sent home from school when the outside lavatories froze - the joy when the jannie would appear in the classroom with his mop in his hand and whisper to the teacher and we'd all go home just after playtime. (Presumably our bladders were supposed to last till we got home). I remember the joy of sledging all alone when I was home and my pals weren't - the virgin snow above the old air-raid shelters in Novar Drive. And of course I remember the brown sugar of the old snow in Great Western Road, and trudging up the hill in the snow to the number 10 tram terminus. And there were wonderful patterns of ice on the inside of the windows in the mornings - ferns, mainly, and starbursts. They were especially beautiful in the small maid's room off the kitchen where I slept, I remember. And I was the lucky one - the range in the kitchen kept the temperature in my wee room bearable.

Of course it must have been bad. And writing this has answered my question to myself, now I think about it. I saw only the effect on me. We didn't have a car, and there were trams (though I don't know how well they functioned in snow, and now there's no-one alive in my family who can tell me, dammit). We were accustomed to put on multiple layers of clothing and walk. We had wellies - though once I had a warmer pair of boots, in blue leather with crepe soles to which the snow clung in such layers that walking became impossible. We made fantastic slides in the playground and hurled ourselves along them; we were consumed with rage when the janny salted them while we were in class (presumably they had rudimentary Health & Safety even then). I loved the snow, my parents didn't seem unduly perturbed by it, we didn't have to worry about loved ones who were driving across the country/flying to London/travelling to Paris. My father had the longest commute - from Hyndland to Springburn - every day, and the rest of us took the tram, about 4 stops, I think.

Maybe we expected less. Our shopping was local, our messages limited to what we could carry. The shops had basics, and seasonal basics at that. When I was really small, we still had rationing. We had powercuts and candles, coal fires and a range in the kitchen. I can remember my mother cooking on it in a powercut. We all had chilblains every winter. It must have been grim, and I would probably hate it now.

We did, however, survive - and I look back on my childhood winters with undiluted pleasure. But excuse me while I go and turn up the heating ...

*This was, I believe, because the stockpiles of coal were frozen solid and no coal could be taken off them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on a man's place

At last - I've got on to a proper computer so that I can blog. Meet Anna, my new granddaughter - whom we're currently waiting to greet home. She's wonderful and well and her big sister can't wait.

All this had me reflecting on my own experience of childbirth, and how things have changed. When Anna's father was born, in Dunoon Hospital, I stayed in for a week - not because I was ill, but because that's what we did. It was very restful and we all had a good laugh on the ward, doing one another's hair and eating chocolate cake. I daresay we moaned a bit too. One thing we didn't see all that much of was our men; they appeared at evening visiting, which was for fathers. Grannies, friends and siblings came for an hour in the afternoon. The rest of the time was for us to slob around in, look like frights, sleep with our mouths open, have showers - all without caring. There was no-one to see. The babies slept in the little nursery; we could have them when we wanted and fed them when they wanted - but when we wanted some down-time, they were looked after and we didn't worry. Time enough for that when we got home.

Now, it seems, fathers take up residence in the ward. They lie on the bed, sit holding the baby while mum takes a shower, chat to other dads. Other visitors have regulated times, but the dads are there all the time, apparently. The baby is beside the mother's bed, and she changes nappies as if she were at home. Dads are pressed into service. The atmosphere is a far cry from the peaceful space I remember. I would find it completely stressful to have other people's husbands in the same space as my dishevelled self - we used to spend the hour after teatime putting our faces on and washing our hair so's to look wonderful for evening visits. Progress? Total involvement?

Of course, there was a time when childbirth was Women's Work. Men were banished from the cave/hovel/whatever, and the Sacred Mysteries remained just that. I would never want to return to the perils of childbirth in the raw, but I wonder if the ancients didn't have something. Maybe we need a kind of via media.

Now, back to the kitchen. Someone has to do the cooking, after all ...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The waiting season

It's cold, tonight. At the end of this afternoon, the sky behind us grew in a wonderful flaming intensity over the still, shining sea lying like steel between us and Bute - and then died, leaving only the afterglow on the hills. Now the night is nailed to the sky with hard, bright stars - not my words, but taken from a poem by Vernon Scannell which I cannot for the life of me track down. It must've been in an anthology in school, and these lines come into my head often at this time of year, for it's an Advent/Christmas poem and the season is almost upon us.

As readers of this blog will know, I love Advent. I love it especially out here on the western fringes of Europe, when the darkness intensifies and makes all the more special the promise of light to come. I have written a new poem for Advent, but as it is to appear in Inspires magazine I shall leave publication online till after I've seen it in print. However, I shall not be beginning Advent in the west this year: I shall be in the city, in the East, waiting for another birth as the season of Advent begins.

I don't know how much blogging I'll be doing while I'm there, but the iPad will accompany me. It does little for the accuracy of my typing but much for my sanity. There is also a highly addictive game on it, for which I blame Ewan. But I'm going in order to be useful, so games and blogs may not be in order. Watch this space, though ...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Godly weans

Oh dear, I fear I'm pushing the boat out: another post and it's not tomorrow yet. But I have this awareness of time's winged chariot vying with the need to blog something - so here goes.

We had weans in church again this morning. Other than a fortnight ago, it's been so long since we had noticeable childer in Holy T that the last representatives of the genre are now turning up with their own, so I've read about things like Godly Play with only a remote interest, as one might consider the current drive in parts of the world to protect the tiger as a species. But Godly Play went on at the back of church today, and at the communion these lovely children trooped up to the altar rail with wonderful cardboard crowns on their heads, and we knew what they'd been doing while we got on with the usual stuff. (Actually, it wasn't the usual stuff; it was the Grey Book liturgy making its monthly appearance. I find it harder and harder to say the Prayer of Humble Access - but there you are)

We'd heard the odd noise, the odd surreptitious clatter, the quiet reading of the crucifixion story from the back - but we'd apparently missed the bubbles, produced by one of them and hastily pressed into service as 'prayer bubbles'. And it all worked because we knew they were there and because we knew they were being well looked after by someone with a purpose and enthusiasm and experience. Mary, you're a star!

Another fold

This cloud - taken from tags in this blog, using Tagxedo, has nothing to do with what I'm thinking, other than that I should be doing something else, like wrapping presents ... but it's fun, and only took a few moments ...

But I was thinking, yet again, of the way time crumples when you undertake annual tasks. Stir-up Sunday, familiar to generations of Anglicans as the day when the collect for the day reminded them that it was high time to stir up their puddings and such for Christmas, may have morphed into the feast of Christ the King, with the collect only mentioned before the service in case any of us was relying on it, but my fruit has been soaking in booze for a week and now the cake is in the oven. Two years ago I wrote a poem about the same sense of a folding in time, when the intervening years vanish in the routine (lining the cake tin - still the same palaver) and smells of cake-making.

Today I was recalling the first time I baked my own cake, instead of going back to sample my mother's cake and perhaps purloin some for our own house. I was on maternity leave, it was cold, and I had slipped on the frosty pavement in Clarence Drive, having gone to the shops before the sun reached that spot. At that time a good stone over my usual weight (I'd think nothing of it now - darn!) I came down with a crash on my rear end. Panic and pain. Would the baby be all right? (yes - still is, as far as I know) Had I cracked my coccyx? (probably, but nothing was done about it). Whatever long-term problems might arise, it was too sore to sit down that afternoon, so to take my mind off the pain and the angst I baked a Christmas cake.

Actually, the memory makes it sound more spontaneous than it must've been; I recall I had planned things, had been given a recipe by a friend whose cake I'd enjoyed, so I must have had the fruit soaking and needed only the impetus to turn it into something. That self-same cake from the self-same recipe is now in the oven, about to have its hat put on and the temperature lowered. Before I go to bed I shall pour the fruity left-over booze over it and wrap it up carefully, and another year will begin (I'm kinda governed by the liturgical, I fear). Perhaps the child who did not suffer from the fall will phone. Life will stagger on.

And then there are puddings to turn to ...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Celebrating MacCaig in style

This is The Library in Waxy O'Connor's pub in Glasgow, where I spent a delightful evening with seven others reading and discussing poetry in honour of Norman MacCaig's 100th birthday. The interesting thing was that I'd never met any of these people before (except Mr B - I met him 43 years ago), and that the medium of communication that brought me there was Twitter. (That makes it sound as if there was nothing else to interest about the evening, but don't be fooled)

I am grateful to Bill Boyd for instigating this evening on several counts. Let's begin with the prosaic. Instead of the usual Sunday of getting the dinner in the oven, eating it and then dozing in front of the telly till it was time for bed, we hied off to Glasgow, ate wonderful tapas in Café Andaluz (ah, the green chillies!), had coffee with Duffy (an irrepressible FP - again arranged via Twitter) and then realised a long-held ambition to visit the building with the flaming torches outside the portico. What is more, we both stayed awake, didn't yawn, and talked all the way home.

And, less prosaically - indeed, positively poetically - I found the desire to write welling up again. I realised how seldom I have the chance to share poetry, to enthuse and be understood, to listen and to discover new things and revisit old friends - and all this in the company of a group of people whose link was the poems of one man. Somehow that cut out all the distractions of shared lives, all the small gossipy details that distract, leaving us with the words, the ideas, the mastery and the mystery that is great poetry. We didn't need to be polite, to make small talk, to organise anything, and that was a release.

Of course it couldn't last. But we were outside in the freezing street before Bill realised that I was a certain Ewan's mother. And then we weren't discussing poetry at all. We were roaring with laughter. And that too was good. A good night, in fact. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I am the enemy you killed, my friend ...

Moonrise over the Cross
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . ."

Wilfred Owen

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Progress Report, anyone?

This pic shows the end of a fascinating exchange on Twitter last night, one which sums up much of what I love about social media - but which in a way saddens me, in that the very praise that gave me genuine pleasure showed how slowly things move in educational circles.

The work that @digitalmaverick is referring to and commending to @janeyk419 is a blog, Progress Report", maintained through 2006 and 2007 by first a couple of S4 students and then by one of them. It began when the two girls came to me for private tuition; following an excellent Standard Grade result one of them returned to the blog for further mentoring as she worked for her Higher English. It became more widely known when I spoke about it at an early TeachMeet at the invitation of Ewan, aka no. 2 son.

So far, so satisfying. But note how long ago that was: four years have elapsed since that blog was being used to improve the writing skills of the students involved, four years since I realised my ambition to use technology to disseminate advice which in the normal classroom I might have had to repeat over and over again to different individuals and groups. The blog itself is as old-fashioned in blogging terms as the one I'm writing now, and the formative assessment given in the comments is what I've built up over a career in the classroom - no change there. After my talk at the TeachMeet, I expected a huge growth in the use of such basic technology to further all kinds of learning - including the fairly traditional model practised by me.

And that's why I was so surprised last night, to find that someone actually recalled this event vivdly enough to consider it outstanding, and that it was not in fact so old hat now as to be past mention. I suppose I thought there would be examples of outstanding practice all over the social networks, an explosion of exemplars that would render this now inactive blog redundant, a curiosity at best.

I left the classroom just as the possibilities of this medium were opening up. There was at the time one classroom's worth of laptops on two trolleys, and you booked them weeks in advance. Any one class was lucky to get them for a period a week, and the labour of tracking them down and finding that someone hadn't plugged them in to recharge put you off the notion as often as not. I don't know how much better provision is now, but I do know that more and more pupils have their own technology. I gather from some former colleagues that they find it a drag to use computers more than is absolutely necessary, but it's been 6 years since I was in school and I'm limited in my local contact now.

I do, however, have one question: how much detailed formative assessment takes place online these days? (unless it's one of these things that are not done any more) It seems to me an obvious area for widespread sharing, for teachers to be of use way beyond the walls of their classroom. Maybe there's loads, and I'm just showing my lack of current experience; in which case, dear readers, I wait for your correction - and your links!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Rather belatedly, because of having to write about it for the local paper and be mindful of grandmothering activities, I must remark on the joyful nature of Sunday's Eucharist in Holy T. Usually we have a turnout of between 20-25, most of us more mature in years than in demeanour with one or two exceptions (work that one out), but on Sunday we found ourselves with over 40. What is more, there were weans: weans visiting, weans of a former chorister who felt inspired to come, weans of old friends who felt like a blast of Anglicanism again.

Because there had been some prior warning of some of these children - our grand-daughter, for one - there had appeared as if by magic a play-rug, jigsaws, books, drawing things and so on in the social area at the back of the church (and a heater - don't forget the heater) so that all through the service we could hear childish voices and the odd thump (no - they weren't thumping each other; just dropping things), and by the end of it everyone looked ... cheerful, hilarious, joyful wouldn't be too strong, and joined in Andrew-led clapping in the final hymn.

The previous Thursday we'd had another performance from Voskresenije - whose name means "resurrection". The theme of the lectionary readings had been Resurrection. On Sunday, that's just what it felt like. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

All Souls celebrated

It can take an unaccustomed service, something out of the ordinary, perhaps, to remind me what it is I love and value in my church. All Souls was such an occasion. A strange time to celebrate the Eucharist, at 5.30pm in the early dark of the beginning of winter; a stroke of genius to use the lighting on only one side of the church, supplemented by the red glow of the infra-red heaters and the flickering of candles - not just the altar candles, but an extra cluster in the choir. This was added to during the reading of names: as we remembered those we have loved and see no more we lit candles and left them there.

The names were underpinned by the quiet playing of the organ - the Kontakion for the Departed, and a further musical meditation on the In Paradisum - and there was also silence, a silence far more complete than we ever experience on a Sunday morning. And this is what I love: music and silence; singing and prayer; dignity and simplicity; words to recall and to heal; and at the heart of it all the Eucharist.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Undemocratic silence?

Thought for today (actually it was Mr B's thought, but I've pinched it): why is it that in the Church of Scotland, that apparently most democratic of institutions, the congregation take so little active part in a service? I was at a funeral today, and it struck me forcibly that even when the minister did a proper lead-up to the final "amen" at the end of a prayer, we were the only people there who said anything. Strange, really.

And I have to say that on occasions such as this, an awareness of ritual and what is a suitable place to stand rather than sit and twitch is very helpful. I got the feeling that half the folk present would have remained sitting as the coffin was carried out, had not a chief mourner forcibly gestured that they should stand.

I think I'm glad I defected all these years ago.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Haunting darkness in India

Taking a break from the temptation of two more unread Kate Atkinson novels, I've just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It wouldn't have been my first choice; I'm not convinced by the fact that a book has won the Man Booker prize (as this did, in 2008) and I didn't feel in the mood for another culture (idle of me, I know). But a trusted friend had lent it to me, so I persevered through the oddness of the opening chapter and found myself hooked.

Aravind Adiga's first novel, this gives an insight into the world that was hinted at during the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in India - a world where the 21st century sits uneasily close to the India we don't really understand. The hero, Balram Halwai, begins school with the name Munna - which means boy. His father never got round to calling him anything else; his mother is dead and just as he realises that he is bright enough to go to college his family take him out of school in the village and send him to work in a tea-shop. From that village, he finds a job as a driver, and this job takes him to Delhi, where the new India rubs shoulders with the old, where the people from The Darkness of poor, backward India are shunned by the people from the Light, the Microsoft workers and call-centre operatives.

Through this experience, we see how Balram becomes the person he describes from the very beginning of the novel, the 'White Tiger', A Thinking Man and an entrepreneur. He is also, if we are to believe his grandiloquent first chapter, a wanted man - and as the story unfolds, in a series of memos to the Chinese premier who is visiting India, we find out why.

However interesting that progress from clever schoolboy to wanted man might be, it is India that is the star of this novel. This is an India that I find compellingly strained by the tensions of growth and development, wealth and poverty, power and the abuse of power, an India of cruelty, resilience and attention to self. Characters loom out of the pages - the driver nicknamed Vitiligo-Lips, the wealthy young man who has lived in the USA but is sucked back into the corruption and behaviour of his family, the family boss who demands that Balram massage his feet, the prostitute with the dyed blonde hair. And among them moves Balram, moves towards the action that will have his face on 'Wanted' posters all over India while he continues to pursue success in Bangalore.

I may have finished reading the book, but it's haunting me still - and I'm glad I don't have to look for cockroaches and geckos on my bedroom wall as Balram did. I'm not sure, however, that in leaving the Darkness of rural poverty and innocence the Balrams of modern India don't find themselves in a Darkness even more awful than the one they have left.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Not so remote after all ...

It is rarely that I go overboard about a pair of sandals, and even more rare to find me enthusing about the delivery of same, as I am more likely to be found girning about the discrimination practised by mail-order companies against people who live in Cowal. I've moaned online about this before, when I was to be charged £20 postage to have a pair of cufflinks delivered to Dunoon because it was in a "remote area" - an hour from Glasgow, mind.

But I digress. The nice pink sandals in the photo were my faithful companions on the recent trip to Barcelona, and though I'd had them for less that a week before I travelled, they were the last word in comfort on hot city streets and cool holy mountains in the rain. They were recommended by a pal with the same size of feet as I have, so I knew what size to order - they worked from the word go. (Keen, size 6 - see them here)

The most wondrous bit of this story, however, is the firm that delivered them, webtogs. Having ordered the sandals at 10.45pm on a Tuesday, I thought I'd be lucky to see them the following Monday - and I was off on holiday the next day. After all, I thought, it's Dunoon. We're remote. I was so wrong: the sandals came at lunchtime on the Thursday, less than 48 hours after I'd clicked on "buy". All beautifully parcelled, delivery free, with a 60 day free returns option. It wasn't a fluke either - I've just taken delivery of a pair of walking boots, two days after ordering them. I've also booked the walking holiday to go with them, but that's another story - meanwhile, I shall give them rigorous testing on the stairs to make sure they're just what I want.

A good story, on a wet day.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cut and paste at your peril ...

I was interested to read Mr W's post today about plagiarism in the 21st century. Make no mistake - the vast repository of information that is out there waiting to be accessed at the flick of a Google is a great temptation to anyone when it comes to cutting and pasting that little bit of someone else's work to enhance your own - and it's so easy!

Of course, it's been around a while, plagiarism - the internet just makes it easier. Neil points out:
Almost the entire essay had been copied and pasted from the net… and no one had noticed until I looked at it. ...
..and you can tell by the look of that how I've copied and pasted it straight from his blog, and even that I've had to fiddle around with fonts to get the rest of what I'm writing to look normal. But had I been writing, say, an academic essay, I'd have worked on ensuring that it was seamless - wouldn't I? And that's how it's always been done. When I was teaching Higher English, when the use of the internet as a resource was in its infancy and online cribs were few and far between, people took whole passages out of books, from Brodie's Notes to the introduction to school editions of Shakespeare to something their big sister/mother who did English/pal in S6 who did well at Higher last year gave them, and inserted this into their own work.

And of course it usually stuck out like a sore thumb. The language would change, the sophistication of expression would be streets ahead of the rest of the writing, there would be words or ideas never once mentioned in discussion of the text in question. I once challenged a pupil over her RPR final draft, pointing out that it bore little relation to what she'd shown me in previous drafts. Parents complained, the PT English was involved - and at last the girl confessed and rewrote her essay. It was all very unpleasant.

Neil puts forward several excellent points to consider in combatting this problem, but in the end the human difficulty will remain. As I've said in a comment, there are people who even in adult life have got away with internet cut-and-paste simply because their supervisor of studies has lacked the necessary grit to confront the culprit. It will be better far if everyone knows that plagiarism will be recognised and dealt with before they try it.

And now I need to try to fix the formatting of this post, which has gone seriously awry since my cutting and pasting!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guilty pleasures

Just spent a guilty hour (reading fiction in the afternoon - heavens) finishing one of my birthday books. What's a girl to do, when her sister gives her three novels and a box of sinfully melting chocs? Reader, I did it. Blame the post -injection lassitude if you like. I still feel guilty.

Trouble is, Kate Atkinson is so gripping. She has a wonderful way with atmosphere, with weaving stories in such a way that though you suspect there will be connections you can't for the life of you see where they lie ... I'm hooked. I'm getting to know Jackson, the retired cop, retired soldier, dispirited investigator with the sad history that's revealed only piecemeal - and I'm beginning to ache with his toothache, sympathise with his undramatic acceptance of the misfortunes that keep careering through his life.

I've always loved a good detective novel, ever since I found Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes in my parents' bookshelves, going on through Dorothy Sayers to P.D. James. My tastes tend to the literary, so Agatha Christie was never a starter, not even when I was fifteen. Now I've discovered a new seam to mine, and I'll have to resist starting another one right away. Case Histories is a complex, moving tragi-comedy, so if you've got a holiday coming up, or a duvet day, or simply a nice box of chocs waiting for your attention, go for it.

Enjoy the guilt!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An open letter to a Bishop-Elect

Dear Bishop-Elect Kevin

First of all, congratulations on your election as Bishop of Argyll and The Isles. (Perhaps this is a good moment to point out the capital "T" in "The" - you will never be allowed to forget it). I was away when the white smoke billowed from Cumbrae, staying, as it happened, with a member of your current flock; her reaction to the news was monosyllabic and entirely negative, which speaks volumes for the esteem in which she holds you. This is good, as far as I'm concerned. Of course, I'm already familiar with the wonderful services you conduct in St Michael's, to say nothing of the splendour of your weddings: the McIntosh family wedding was magnificent and was the talk of the steamie at the time. In fact, St Michael's has been my church on the many occasions when I've been in Edinburgh, and I feel it's going to be quite a change for you.

So - what might be of interest to a new bishop? Maybe you haven't realised yet that Argyll & The Isles is actually rather like Gaul - there are three parts to it. The area south of Inveraray, say, tends to look east, towards the Central Belt - after all, it's an hour to the centre of Glasgow for Dunoon folk, but a white-knuckle hour and three quarters to Oban. The Cathedral of The Isles is an important centre for Piskies down here, and we think it is exquisite. There are times when Oban feels very distant, especially in the winter; the folk from the islands, I assume, feel much the same.

There are pockets of Cursillistas in Argyll, but they tend not to meet with any regularity - in fact, most of them are so busy keeping their own churches going that they see a great deal of a limited group anyway. We wonder, in our quiet way, how you feel about Lay Ministry - there's a lot of it about. We feel we've grown as a result.

A few of us are very aware of the benefits of online communication, though much of the diocese is not as well served by this as it should be, and Oban itself - I have just realised - does not seem to have 3G networking. Failing that, you should soon be striking up a close relationship with Caledonian MacBrayne and honing your single-track road driving skills. Given that the road goes ever on when it comes to the diocese, we don't expect we shall see very much of you once you are ensconced in Oban - unless we can produce some confirmations for you. We try, we try.

I haven't mentioned the ethnic or cultural backgrounds of your impending flock (I like that image) - you will soon be in a much better position to judge. Just bear in mind that considerable variety exists. And despite local prejudice (we are still "The English Church") there are a good number of ethnic Scots in your flock-to-be.

You have taken on a challenging task, agreeing to become our Bishop. Please don't change. I hope you find yourself enjoying it all, and I look forward to welcoming you.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reflection on Gaudi

La Perdrera: like soldiers
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I realise as I reflect on the Barcelona trip that by far the greatest single influence on my photos and on my memories is the work of Antoni Gaudi, previously known to me only as the creator of the crane-surrounded towers of La Sagrada Familia. The photo here is of the roof terrace of Casa Milà, 'La Perdrera', the extraordinary apartment block in Barcelona, so nicknamed because the façade looks like solid rock (the name means "the stone quarry").

The apartments we saw on one of the upper floors was fascinating in its early 20th century domestic detail, but the real joy was the roof terrace, with its serried ranks of helmeted chimneys and ventilators like soldiers of Sparta or Middle Earth, glittering with tile work (the trencadis, or broken ceramic pieces) or smooth concrete. Wandering the undulating walkways in the bright sun was an exhilarating experience, at once surreal and calming, as if the equilibrium between earth and sky was mirrored in the architecture.

A comment on my earlier post about La Sagrada Familia suggested that it was a waste of resources to complete a building that belonged to the tastes of a previous era, and while I always acknowledge that de gustibus non est disputandum, I shall dispute the idea that resources spent on art are wasted. Many years ago, a teacher I admired gave me notes he'd used in teaching poetry to recalcitrant adolescents, the first words of which were: Poetry, like all the arts, is useless. It went on to enumerate the benefits to the spirit of art, but that first line never failed to bring forth a protest.

Yes, we can concentrate on feeding the poor and ensuring that people are properly housed, and such are the proper aims of society. But any society that cannot find the lightness of spirit - and yes, maybe the lunacy - to invest in something of beauty (taste, again!) misses something really important, I think. And of course, we can argue that all these workmen drilling and cutting and polishing in La Segrada Familia are being paid to do so, and their families are better off because of their labour, and the community benefits from all the paying punters like me who go to gaze and wonder.

No, I was thrilled by what I saw - the Basilica, the unfinished Crypt in Colonia Güell, and this, La Perdrera - and enthused in a way I've not felt in many places. As for the taste of another age - well, there are all these Perpendicular and Norman buildings calling out for restoration and upkeep, all over England, and we don't tend to disparage their even older style, do we? And as for the method of designing these wonderful structures - the hanging bags of lead shot suspended over mirrors that you can see here - this left me gobsmacked.

I'm glad that, even in this rational age, we're still a bit crazy,

Monday, September 27, 2010

Montserrat and Deus Absconditus

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
All the guide books and sites tell you that a visit to Montserrat from Barcelona is a must. We did the trip on a pretty overcast day, when the famously jagged peak of the mountain - or peaks, for there are so many of them, great rounded fingers of rock pointing into the sky - were drifted with cloud and the Benedictine Abbey overhung with gloom. The crowds were huge - the weather didn't seem to have put anyone off, and by the time we entered the Abbey church we had to hunt for a seat.

It was not that we were all overcome by a need to be holy - of that more in a minute - but that the famous boys' choir sings at 1pm daily. And sure enough, after a few prayers in several languages, there they were. Beautiful voices, yes - though nothing that those of us familiar with the English Cathedral tradition wouldn't recognise. The direction, however, left much to be desired, with a slack beat and flaccid rhythm, and the arrangement of the traditional song they performed was wooden and uninspired.

This pause in the church, however, left space for reflection. The original monks who had struggled up here to found their community were presumably seeking God in the solitude and the silence of the peaks, and in the photo I've chosen you can perhaps get some sense of that - I've managed to lose most of the crowds. But nowadays hordes of tourists flock there, as we did, lighting candles, taking photos (with varying degrees of aggression), shuffling, eating and shopping - and I had the distinct impression of a Deus absconditus, a God who wasn't there any more.

It's at moments like these that I think of our own empty mountains, or of the wind howling through the peaks when the tourists have gone, and experience a strong fellow-feeling with those who say they don't need church to find the presence of God. We humans, we have a terrible tendency - do we not? - to crowd God out, to replace the divine with the digital and the spiritual with the sensual.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cool St George's

As it's Sunday, and as it's a day when my own little church seemed the only place to be, with great singing, good silences and considerable warmth (and not just because we put the heating on for the first time in months!), I find myself reflecting on my church experience last week, in Barcelona. I feel a vivid present coming on ...

The taxi drivers have been really challenged by our need to find the Anglican church in Barcelona. Indeed, some of us might have plumped for the Cathedral, but mindful of the sense of duty of at least one of our number we've gone ex-pat English and find ourselves ploughing up a hill in the Bearsden of Barcelona, surrounded by pretty houses and walled gardens. A sign, in English, reassures us that we are indeed in the right neck of the woods for St George's, and, only slightly late, we abandon our church-free comrade and head into the white, shade-surrounded building from which the sound of singing and guitar can already be heard. We find a pew at the rear, occupied by only one person, and slide in. Four of us. Note this: we are not invisible. The service hasn't really begun - they're just singing. The words, along with pretty slides, are projected on the white wall, but we know none of the songs and remain silent.

The chaplain is wearing an ordinary blue striped shirt with a dog collar. He is playing a guitar, which he puts down in between the (frequent) singing breaks. He opens the service, and we find our way to the correct bit in the laminated sheet. The liturgy is at once familiar and strange. Big chunks of what I am accustomed to appear to be missing, including a bit of the Consecration Prayer. It is all very evangelical - and yet, when we come to the Peace, no-one so much as acknowledges that we're strangers. The Intercessions are of the kind I use for my spoof worksheets on "Not the Intercessions" - I could make up a whole new lesson based on this example. The lady in question obviously doesn't know that God is omniscient. She also takes the chance to read a big chunk of the Bible in mid-intercession. I take to reading the pew leaflet. We are encouraged to indicate whether we'd prefer wine or non-alcoholic, wafer or bread. But there is no indication of how to achieve this, so we line up for communion in hope that the handsomely ancient-looking chalices hold the real stuff. The bread is a dire warning - a small fragment of pitta bread clings forlornly to the palate. The chalice holds something with ... bubbles. It tastes like Ribena. We sit down again.

By the time the Sunday School have sung a song to demonstrate how they spent their time, and two notices have taken ten minutes and have included, somehow, a puff for a travel guide, we have had enough. We have someone waiting outside and we've been here for almost 90 minutes. We know they will sing again. It is time to go. On the way out, we avail ourselves of their pristine facilities and reflect that whatever we think about the service this church, unlike ours, has a loo.

In short, it was a dire experience. The prayers - implying the Godlessness of Barcelona - made us think that if you weren't 'wanny us' you were doomed. It was Little England, with a touch of the USA abroad. One woman followed us out as we left - "will you not be coming for coffee?" We pointed out that it was rather a long service, and were told that it was because they loved being together. We smiled, nicely, and said it was rather longer than we were used to and we had obligations elsewhere. But this was the first smile, the first acknowledgement of our presence in this church - four of us, mind.

I suspect I sound like a girn. But if this was my first experience of church, of Christianity, it would also be my last. How many people have such an experience? Let's make sure that they never, ever, have it anywhere we worship in. And let's make sure that the stranger in our midst is welcomed, warmly and genuinely.

Even if she does arrive late.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Window on the future

Windows in the forest
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A highlight of the recent Fahrt to Barcelona was the visit to La Segrada Familia - the iconic, unfinished basilica which I first noticed while trying to text-wrap round an image of its towers for the school's entry in a newspaper competition. We ran a school trips section, and this particular photo taxed my fairly rudimentary skills with Pagemaker. But the jumble of towers and cranes seen from the streets of Barcelona give little indication of what is inside.

I'm used to gloom and relative silence inside the ecclesiastical buildings I've visited (there are many). Not here. Strangely, it was not the bedlam of workmen who have to make the interior ready for the Papal visit in November that made the greatest impression. It was the light - a pale, greenish/pinkish glow that suggested a mystery beyond the merely holy - the mystery of life itself. The columns are organic in their construction, arching up like great trees to split into smaller branches and then into leaf-like fans supporting the ceiling. They seem to be in no recognisable pattern, and yet nothing seems out of place. The flow of stone is elegant and natural, and the light from windows - stained glass or otherwise - permeates the space from hundreds of openings. We were told of plans to fill some of the light-apertures with coloured glass - I think the accompanying photo shows how this might look (at the top of the pillar in the middle ground)

Outside, I was aware of the contrast between the sculptures round the door we had entered by and the ones on the Passion Façade by which we left. The older are of conventional style, though placed among Gaudi's fantastically melting stonework as in a gigantic dripping candle. On the Passion façade, however, Subirach's sculpture is starkly modern, almost cubist in appearance, and intensely powerful, as the road to the Cross is depicted as an upward path on the Western side of the building. Some of the detail escaped me in the bright midday sun - I only noticed the women covering their faces when I looked at the photos I had taken.

If it does indeed take another 20 years for this amazing building to be completed, it is unlikely that I shall see it. But even as it is, Gaudi's vision has transformed my idea of what a church can be. I shall never be satisfied again!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sunny Barcelona!

Sunny Barcelona!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This is where I've been for the past week - not stuck on the beach, natch, but indulging in various cultural pursuits and some less so, in the company of 52 other people. Think a school trip for adults and you'll get the flavour: a holiday where the individual participant only has to worry about being in the right place at the right time to catch the bus. You can find further information on the concept of the Fahrt (for this, Best Beloved, is its name) on Rev Ruth's blog, along with the actual diary of what we did; rather than reduplicate her work I shall allow myself the luxury of random comment.

There was something surreal in our swift transition from the rain and the dark of Linlithgow at 5am (for Fahrts are based in that august town), via the instant porridge that I ate at Prestwick Airport, to the warm sun and superb beach at Barcelona. I'd seen the forecast and was determined to swim in the sea - not something I've done so far this summer - and did just that, returning up the road to the hotel with the unmistakable holiday feeling of sand between the toes and salty skin.

Out hotel, the Villa Olympic, was one built for the Barcelona Olympics; Bruce our Obersturmbannführer (love the wee dots; not so sure about the spelling) told us to expect quite a swish hotel in an area reminiscent of Leith before gentrification set in. It was noteable chiefly for the interesting layout of the rooms - the first thing you saw when you opened the door was the bath, and there was a great deal of glass, strategically frosted - and the unpredictability of the lifts. It was not uncommon to find frustrated Fahrters soaring from ground floor to sixth and back again when they really wanted floor 2, and you had to use your key to activate it unless you were going straight down and hadn't fouled everything up so that it ground to a halt. This was especially entertaining on the night of The Flood, when a sudden burst pipe in one of the group's rooms dripped down two floors into the foyer and along the corridor. Fiona was in the middle of a hysterical ride when I joined her in the lift and promptly jiggered it; I had a vision of us having to break out through the roof but survived.

By the time we went to bed on the first night a night club was throbbing incessantly a couple of streets away, and the second day saw most of us who had rear-facing rooms switching to the front of the hotel. It also saw us visit La Sagrada Familia - but that's another story for another day. The flooded Fahrters, by the way, were rehoused. In a suite. It's tough being a Fahrter.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I'm heading off for a few days - think a bit of sun, about 10º increase in temperature, a few friends - so won't be moderating any comments till I get back. If I find time/energy/a signal I may post the odd thing, but my phone's been acting strangely. I shall, however, be able to read any comment you care to leave ...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where were you when ...

I've been watching some of the TV programmes marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, including what seemed to me a well-made film about the passengers who foiled the fourth attack by re-taking their hijacked plane. But inside my head I was re-running the film of my own experience of that day nine years ago.

I was just outside my classroom door after the lunch break when my mobile phone rang. While my class filed in and settled themselves, I took the call. It was Number One son, in the Guardian offices in London. He sounded incredulous, interested, sharing a story with me. There had been a freak accident - a small plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. Ignoramus that I was, I had to ask where exactly this was, had to be told that it consisted of two massive towers. Strange now, to think that I didn't know. As we spoke, he suddenly broke off. He was watching the live monitors in the newsroom, and there was another plane - surely not - yes, it too had flown into the second tower. I felt as if I was witnessing it myself, as I became aware that the second year pupils in front of me had stopped chatting, that the room had become silent, that they were all staring at me. I think my mouth was open in horror, and I don't think I was making much sense.

I can recall now how frustratingly hard it was to find out what exactly was happening; I took my class to the library for their scheduled book-changing/research period and told them to search, to see if they could find anything online about this unfolding horror. Meanwhile, I told the technician whose lair was close to my room to put on his television - one of the few in the school connected to an outside aerial. The pupils were finding out plenty about the WTC, but so far there was no real news - and they were as frustrated as I was.

By the time I reached the last period of the afternoon - a non-contact one for me - the technician's room was full of off-duty staff, all glued to the screen, all silent except for the odd gasp or oath. We saw the first tower fall, and then the second - in the wrong order, it seemed. Fear began to grow - would there be a war? A big one, involving everyone? Anything seemed possible.

I'm of an age to remember what I was doing when I heard Kennedy had been shot; this year is the first I have realised that that strangely live participation across half a world, a newsroom screen and a mobile phone is becoming similarly vivid. And these 13 year old kids who were in my room at the time it happened felt that they too had a tiny share in "being there" - it was one of the things several recalled when we've met since.

I would like not to be part of any more horror, no matter how distantly. Please?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sanity vs the bams

Glad to see our wee church stepping up to the mark with this statement about the absurd threats by that American pastor who wanted to burn copies of the Koran. The Primus said:
The burning of holy books is one of the most extreme manifestations of religious intolerance. It dishonours and devalues the faith of those who hold these texts as sacred. I unreservedly condemn the actions of those who plan to attack the Islamic community by desecrating their scriptures. Those who threaten to do this should be aware that, in today’s world, this will be seen also as a cultural and political provocation and may put at risk the lives of innocent people.
It would be good if the popular media would publicise this calm voice of sanity as widely as the threats of what in these parts the kids would call a bam. Wouldn't it?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Followers on Twitter will know that I've just spent a foul morning (weather, state of mind and activity all qualify) doing my online Tax Return. And followers of my life to date will realise that the last time I'd to fill in a tax return is lost in the mists of history - probably before I returned to work after giving birth to two sons to whom tax returns are probably as familiar as writing poetry is to me. But poetry they are not.

As an accountant friend pointed out on Facebook, my travails are why people employ accountants. It's just that I can't bring myself to think that my simple one-off job last year merited such an extravagance - nor to believe that I can be as stupid as I currently feel. Why, after all, would someone ever employ a thicko who couldn't fill in a tax return?

And of course, it's not really that at all. It's lack of familiarity with the jargon. The professional me knows that jargon's often at the heart of most incomprehension. When I returned to teaching in the early '80s, they'd introduced Standard Grade. I became instantly depressed at my first DM by talk about GRC and folios, about summative and formative assessment. Apparently I'd been accustomed to normative assessment and never known it. Obviously I had much to learn.

It's the same with money matters. Once you get the handle on what the tax people call things, it becomes slightly more accessible; you then have to realise what their forms won't tolerate (use the 'return' key at your peril and forget your antiquated notation that puts commas to indicate thousands). But don't ever think that help is only a phonecall away. Once you've littered your screen with help notes and pdf files, you can try phoning, and eventually, after several terse 'thanks for waiting's and reruns of a dire jingle, you will get a person to speak kindly to you and return re-invigorated to your screen only to find that the session has closed down because you spent too long away from it. And then, of course, you get the crash of the site when you're 75% finished and when you get back in you have to retrace your steps through several screens in a panic lest you have to do any more sums - or even look up more bits of paper.

Ok, I admit it. I'm not interested in money and keeping track of bits of paper. My files are stuffed to overflowing with statements I never look at. I am interested in poetry and literature and language and the problems of religious faith - and these don't seem to equip me for life in the financial world at all. But when I pop my clogs - it's all there, kids: you'll just have to look for it.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Climbing, catastrophe, and a poem

I've been writing about the climb I did on Thursday - a poem seemed an appropriate vehicle for what I'd been thinking about on the top, and you can read it here. But the extraordinary thing for me on the summit ridge of Ben Donich was that I was alone. Ok, it was only for 30 minutes or so, but in 58 years of climbing in Scotland I've never been alone and it was an exciting experience. A forgotten crag not far below the summit had meant that Mr B declined to accompany me - it's a rock scramble that you have to descend before the last easy climb - and as I knew I'd done it before, I decided to go for it.

That solitary moment or so as I took photos and looked at the blue hills around me gave me time to reflect on the time when I won't be able to do this any more. I'm happy to say, however, that the catastrophe of a sprained ankle waited until I was down the hill - I fell off the back garden path when we arrived home. Should'a kept the boots on ...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blue remembered hills?

High enough to rise above the noise

of cars and lorries on the road below

high enough to feel the cool wind blow

to raise the hair and chill the sweating back

high enough to see the buzzard swoop

above the trees but far below my feet

high enough to see the rock break through

and shed the layer of turf and gleaming mud -

yes. Here was where this day had to be spent.

High enough, just high enough.