Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not a conjunction

It's happened again. I'm riveted by Sarah Dunant's latest novel and enjoying the intricacies of life in an Italian Renaissance convent and I'm pulled up sharp by a grammatical infelicity, such as happened in each of the other two novels I've read by this author. Each time it occurs in the latter stages of the story, and each time it comes as a shock because of the obvious linguistic skill displayed up to this point. What on earth happens? Does she too become so caught up in the story she's weaving that she grows careless?

I'll come back to this book when I've finished reading it, but for anyone out there who cares about such things, the sentence in question is this: "Instead, he, like she, had been a master of deception." "Like" is not a conjunction - I can hear my father's voice as I write this - and the subsequent pronoun should have been "her" - the object of the preposition "like".

Do dinosaurs say harrumph?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Old-fashioned fun

Grandma draws Catriona
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
When I was at secondary school, it was after S3 that we cut out of our curriculum those subjects we didn't intend to take Highers in. In my case this meant no more Art - and I regretted this, for though I was never a painter I had always enjoyed drawing. Life drawing turned out to be far more up my alley than I had suspected, and I can still recall producing perfectly recognisable pencil drawings of two friends whose turn it was to stand on desks in the middle of the art room. (Vera Campbell and Alison Goodall - are you still alive?)

My granddaughter has started drawing - she does a wonderfully confident circle as the starting point for mysterious heads with round, dark eyes and random facial markings - and this week demanded that I should have a go. Because she was wearing a very distinctive Peppa Pig cardi with big stripes and big buttons, it was a bit of a cheat, really, to gain instant recognition and acclaim for the figure I produced, but the exercise re-awakened all the joy I used to have in this sort of thing.

I recall sitting quietly, bored out of my skull, in the house of a friend of my aunt's. I must have been six, I think, or maybe seven. The whole afternoon was redeemed by my being given a small bit of paper - maybe out of a diary? - and a pencil. I drew the dresser - a massively intricate piece of furniture - and the patterned china sitting on the shelf. It took ages to finish, and I was engrossed. Much, much later - like maybe ten years ago - I amused myself during a "Please Take" in an Art class (sitting in the class of an absent colleague keeping the peace and supplying paper when required) by sketching the faces of the pupils around me. Great hilarity when one of them caught sight of what I was doing - I had to do the whole lot then. Great disciplinary tool, really.

Anyway, "Do another Catriona" resulted in a gallery of small stripey figures left behind as we returned yesterday. Who needs the computer?

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's life, Jim ...

Can't I prowl in peace?
Originally uploaded by Mac44.
The bird table continues to be a source of fascination as this frozen winter comes to an end. The latest mix of seeds (Bill Oddie's no mess mix!) is obviously infinitely preferable to the last lot and is hoovered up relentlessly every day - for the most part by a blackbird pair, who are becoming a permanent fixture. Mrs B is the biggest glutton - can she be eating for two yet? I don't know how these things work in bird circles - and seems to be more or less omnivorous.

Trouble is, I long to intervene. There are several chaffinches, a robin and a host of tits lurking in the bushes nearby, occasionally darting in at the table before a stern look from Mrs B (and this is not me, for once!) sends them packing again. As for the wee brown jobs with the delicate speckles on their backs and the funny wee tuft on top of their heads, forget it. They bounce gently on the willow branches beside the window, but rarely seem to get peace to eat - though I have noted one devouring something under the berberis near the table.

And this, of course, brings me to the mog in the photo. It has taken to visiting, and if you follow the link on the pic you will find more photos of its attempts to get close to the bird table - I've only chosen this photo because it gives such a good picture of its indignant expression if we stare at it. I worry, you see, for these wee brown birds on the ground - and shall be deeply sad if we are brought any Easter offerings. Intervention so far has been limited to encouraging the cat to move on - but I can't be there 24/7, and nature, red in tooth and claw and all that, has to take its course. Doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lighten our darkness ...

Anyone who read my last post will have thought: dismal. That's how she feels: dismal. And they'd have been right. And now I'm home again and I'm seriously tired - for whatever you feel, it's a demanding drive home after a long day - but I'm not dismal any more. Synod threw up things to concern and galvanise, and I may in time return to some of these things, but by teatime yesterday I'd cheered up.

Most of this transformation was effected by +Mark's sermon and charge to members of Synod at the Eucharist, where I found myself reaching for a truly old-fashioned medium ( the service booklet and a pencil) to record some of it. He was wearing a huge and extraordinary ring,* which had belonged to Bishop Forbes at the time of the 18th century Jacobite risings, and reminded us of the faithfulness it represents - the faithfulness of the Episcopal Church which over the years has fed others, not least the Episcopal Church in the USA. He exhorted us to a burning desire to proclaim the love of God in the communities we serve - serve as opposed to live in. The fact that at the moment we have no bishop does not stop our ministries, and we've not to let anyone tell us differently. Our task, he went on, is to be people who are open - open to the seeking of others, to those who will join us briefly and then move on; open to those who struggle elsewhere because of rules and regulations and find in our worship and our structures an openness and freedom. When we get bogged down in buildings and quinquennials we must ask: Who will I bring the light of God to today? This, said +Mark, is what we are about. The church has a voice - not of rules, commandments or exclusion, but simply a voice of love. He ended with the stirring reminder that today, in us, is the fulfilment of God's promise.

Somehow, that worked. And the good humour and yes, the love, survived the airless conditions of our windowless venue and the haphazard arithmetic of the tellers (why, I ask myself, was I chosen as a teller, again?) By the end of business this afternoon, we were ready to believe the bishop's closing words: we are a beautiful diocese, one which most people in the world want to visit, and whatever we might think, visitors find it wonderful to go to church on a Cal Mac ferry. We must stop moaning about long drives and difficulties, demolish the barriers that keep people from church, have the courage to speak about our church in the ordinary places where we find ourselves; we must enable the joy of faith and the love of God to be seen through us.

Yes, it worked. And I'm glad to have been proved unduly pessimistic: Moray diocese is fortunate in having a bishop who can light up a room, and we are lucky to have him on loan. Now we just need to find Another of The Same, as the old hymnbooks used to say. Here's to the election!

*For more about this ring, see Hugh's comment on this post.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Argyll Synod

Diocesan Synod this week - and a meeting of the Electoral Synod that as yet does not have any electing to do. It means a two day visit to Oban, with people having to stay away from home and travel some of the most challenging roads in the country to get there. In past years I've felt a certain anticipation - there's a social element, a dinner, a sense of the diocese meeting for once instead of ploughing lonely furrows in scattered pockets of Episcopalianism. And for the past 5 years or so there's been Bishop Martin, and he always raised spirits just by being himself. I don't feel that sense of anticipation this year. We need to be able to elect another bishop, and one of our choosing - and Canon Law, like Time's winged chariot, is pressing down on us.

As we all head to Oban tomorrow, like so many bedraggled homing pigeons, we could do with the prayers of our friends, wherever they are, that all will be well.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Must be Spring!

Must be Spring!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Today reminded me of why I used to say I hated early March - that promise of warmth that turns out to be a chill wind; the clouds that whisk over the blue; the bleak dusk where before there was cosy darkness. Reminded me, that is, until we were heading back from a brisk walk along Loch Striven-side - in itself an antidote to bleakness as we watched a swathe of rain pass us by on the far side of the loch with only a sprinkling on our shore.

The wind had dropped suddenly, as it often does at the end of an afternoon, and in the sudden silence we heard ... a clucking sound. Not exactly chicken-like, but a sort of contented purring. It came from the ditch - the only bit of the ditch with water in it - and when we looked we could see that the muddy water was alive with movement. The photo shows the cause, but I'm too ignorant to know if this couple are frogs or toads. Someone can doubtless enlighten me.

Whatever they were, they were making the most of the afternoon - and they cheered me up no end.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A haunting novel

Another good book, a first novel this time. Two women, one in the present, one in the mid-nineteenth century, as far as I can make out from the social history of the time. Both have suffered loss, and their shared experience seems to sensitise the present-day owner of the cottage to the presence of the past. But Baker doesn't just follow the story of Rachel, tidying out her parent's country retreat after the death of her mother; in equal measure we follow the life of Elizabeth at the time when her world and the society she inhabits are both shaken by the arrival of the Chartist movement.

By the end of the novel I was as moved by the plight of the ordinary countryfolk of the nineteenth century as I was by the emotional turmoil of both women. I had learned a bit about the roots of the democracy we now take - more or less - for granted, and the suffering of those who sought to break out of the tyranny of the master-servant mould. Not only that: I was delighted by the visual quality of Baker's prose and by the mastery of pace and rhythm.

Another recommendation for your next book group?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Huvtaes no more

I was working today. Well, sort of. That kind of voluntary stuff that has you heading off on the ferry with a briefcase full of papers (and a sandwich!) rather than a rucksack, wearing, if you can picture this, the kind of shoes you sit around in rather than the ones you hike up a muddy glen in. And yes, it was stuff for the church, dealing with the business of lifelong education and distance learning in Argyll and The Isles.

Quite apart from the revisited horror of spending hours closeted in a relatively gloomy and distinctly ecclesiastical-smelling room while the sun was splitting the sky, I recognised the sinking feeling that used to overtake me at Department Meetings when there was paperwork to shuffle and forms to fill in. In particular, I was reminded of the horror of the Modules which used to happen in schools before Higher Still came in and changed everything (again). I realised yet again why promotion to the paper-shuffling (or file-shuffling, if you like) echelons of the teaching profession had never been an option for me - the department would have fallen apart in a welter of missing documentation.

Not that I am incapable of keeping some sort of tabs on things I consider wildly relevant - the carefully-filed Standard Grade folios or the book of notes on Higher RPRs come to mind - but maintaining individual record-sheets for people used to drive me potty and my record of work tended to be composed retrospectively, with the help of the pupils. I long ago recognised that I was a performer, not an administrator, and that living in the moment was always preferable to planning for it - or writing said moment up later.

And so it was with joy that I was able to sit back this afternoon and note that my - what? line-manager? boss? superior? pal? - was going to bear the brunt of all this bumf. I'm retired, I heard myself murmuring (yes, I can do murmurs) and I don't have to do this. I can take holidays, I can suit myself about the hours I work ... but inside the voice of truth was adding its own tuppenceworth. I do what is fun for me to do - and when I'm not enjoying it any more, I stop.

I guess I was anticipating all this when I was asked by an acquaintance on the ferry if I was still working. (I musta looked businesslike). No, I said, I'm retired from teaching. But what I really meant was that I've retired from huvtaes - all of them.

*In certain educational circles, a "huvtae" is what in Dunoon we called a "Please Take" - the dread summons to cover the class of an absent colleague. I have appropriated it to cover all the compulsory elements of working life - set hours, set holidays and so on.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

White smoke at last

Whew! The white smoke was billowing metaphorically around Holy Trinity church, Dunoon, today - and in the other episcopal charges of the Cowal and Bute district - as we were at last able to acknowledge that a new priest had been appointed. The Reverend Andrew Swift, originally from Aberdeen, is currently a full-time curate in a semi-urban parish in Gloucester City, and before training for ministry worked in the shipbuilding industry.

For the first time in almost 30 years there will be a young family living in the Rectory, the last such family belonging to our recently-retired bishop, +Martin. At that time I was one of the young adults in the congregation, and some of us were reflecting the other day that we are now the Old Women of the tribe - though strangely we don't feel like it. Thirty years ago women of my age wore tweed skirts - remember these skirts with the pleats from each side of the hip? - and Pringle twinsets under their sensible jackets and above their sensible shoes. They perhaps wore pearls, or a Luckenbooth brooch. At yesterday's meeting there were jeans, technical-fabric trousers, trainers, hiking boots (so still sensible footwear!), fleeces and T-shirts. Presumably we now head to the grave dressed as we have since we left mini-skirts behind ... but I digress.

Life is short, but at least with a new priest it will be less demanding - just a bit - for the lay team, who may not have to write so many sermons. And it promises to be interesting. What more could we ask for?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Illuminating the Lighted Rooms

I've been reading Richard Mason's The Lighted Rooms - a book which might have appealed to me solely by its Larkin-inspired title had it not been lent to me for my recent holidays. An unusual study of dementia, it was at once gripping and illuminating - and no, that's not a pun - though occasionally the familiarity of a situation described would have me wincing in recognition. This was particularly true, I think, in the description of the expensive nursing home in which Joan, one of the main characters, takes up residence - all the "advantages" which distinguish such establishments from the hotels they seek to emulate add up to a prison in Joan's eyes and are so well described as to make any reader uncomfortable.

And yet this story conveys not pathos but a kind of joyous heroism, as Joan makes easy friendships with two very different young men, inspiring their loyalty and gratitude in a way which her competitive and successful daughter cannot. On the way to the"triumphant serenity" achieved by Joan at the novel's end, we learn about such diverse subjects as British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer war and the operation of hedge funds, but it is in the illumination of the "Lighted Rooms" that Larkin thought might make up the sum of consciousness of old people that Mason's chief accomplishment lies. It seems not quite right to say I enjoyed the book, but I was riveted by it and recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you're looking for a Book Group subject, there are some helpful suggestions for discussion at the end.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


This didn't begin life in poetic form, but morphed somehow in the telling. Anyway, it was yesterday, and it was perfect.

Walking on the Toward shore
the sea flat, a sheet of glass with
liquid, slightly moving edges,
the light blinding from its morning place
the hills splendidly white and pure
I found my being gripped with joy
so fierce that walking seemed too much
and stopped. And then I heard the quiet
crooning from the glistening rocks
where the conversationalists were quite
hidden till one stretched and looked
so like the duck it really was
that laughter bubbled in my throat.
And then I saw the crowds of them
all sitting in the morning sun
and burbling gently, as ducks do
until they flew towards the light
and skiffed like stones and circled round -
and all I knew was beauty. Mine. My land
and yet not mine as I pass through -
this need to possess the things we love
not new, but part of life itself,
this love of place, of light, of air,
of tiny waves against the shore.
This ache that takes the place of prayer.

©C.M.M. 03/10