Saturday, December 31, 2011


Last read of the year
I realise, through the Lemsip-induced haze of another cold, that I've been remiss in reviewing books recently. It's not that I've given up reading - nothing can replace that comfortable joy of having a good book on the go - but simply that other things, usually music, family or church, got in the way. So here, on the last day of the year, is a round-up of stuff I've read recently.

Unless, by Carol Shields, was an odd book. It was beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading it immensely - but realise, at several months' distance, that I had to check the Amazon review to remind me of one of the threads. But I loved the involvement in the mind of writer heroine Reta, her anxieties about her eldest daughter who drops out of university and sits on a street corner in Toronto with a placard saying "Goodness", her tussles with her insensitive publisher, and I was completely convinced by her wonderful conversations with her friends.

After that, I had a quick scamper through some old Penguins. Sweet Danger and The Crime at Black Dudley, both by Margery Allingham, convinced me that I was right to consider The Tiger in the Smoke the best I've read of her books - the style remained seductive, but the plots were pretty daft. They were really old Penguins too - the original green and white covers, with yellowing pages, foxed at the edges.

One of my birthday books I had added to my wish list purely on the grounds of its Amazon description. The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is a great tome (I read it in hardback - quite risky reading in bed when sleepy, lest it fall on one's nose) covering the span of almost a century with complete conviction and mastery. In one sense, it is a novel about a biography - a biography of someone we have already met in the opening chapters, just before the outbreak of World War 1. But it is also about Englishness, and about how people change over time, and about manners and customs and society ... and it is beautifully written and just challenging enough to keep me flipping back to check my memory against that of various protagonists.

Then I was lent A.D. Miller's Snow Drops as a suitably small paperback for a plane journey. This kept me riveted for two flights and the time in between, and I agreed with the reviewer who said it 'reads like Graham Greene on steroids'. Snowdrops are apparently the corpses that appear when the snow of the Russian winter melts, and the winter in Moscow is as much a character in this story of love and betrayal as Nick , the English lawyer, and Masha, the Russian girl he loves. The writer used to be The Economist's Moscow correspondent, and he convinces with every word. As I look forward to a trip to Russia in the coming year, I can't help wondering if 'grandma's summer' will be over and the cold air will already be threatening the winter to come...

I finished the year with another Josephine Tey, having so unexpectedly enjoyed The Franchise Affair. I had tried The Daughter of Time in my teens - I have a feeling my mother gave me it when I was off school with some bug - and completely failed to become interested in this tale of a convalescent detective solving the mystery of Richard the Third from his hospital bed. Who killed the Princes in the Tower? Perhaps they weren't killed at all. Was Richard the horror depicted by Shakespeare? Check the origin of his sources. The book is intricate, painstaking and fascinating. I shall never look at history in the same way again. The mature me loved it, and I finished it yesterday. The picture above is of the edition - now 50 years old - that I read; it seems to me a suitable illustration for an end-of-year blog post.

I have now started one of my Christmas books - two pages of The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest already have me feeling more cheerful about this wet Ne'erday - and there are others waiting in the wings. Now, off the computer and back to the books ...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe ...

The kitchen is warm. No - it is actually unbearably hot. The erstwhile poet/musician, transformed for the nonce into Domestic Goddess, is hard at work. The oven is purring, for she has begun the day by roasting beetroot. There are still ominously red drips splattered over the white sink, as if Lady Macbeth had been washing her hands there, and sticky red blobs show where the cranberry sauce was poured, splashily, like a fine wine, into the warmed jars. (The DG was unhappy with the first batch, the cranberries having been over-long in the freezer, and has ditched it and made another lot.)

The heat is loaded with smells, individually rather wonderful, but together somewhat worrying. The burbling from the cooker-top indicates that it is time for the spiced prunes to come off the heat - star anise, honey smells - and it is time to find the preserving pan. Why, in the name of Christmas, the preserving pan? Well, the DG is very fussy about marmalade, and has just opened the last jar ... Ok, she uses tinned oranges, but there are a couple of red grapefruit to chop up (red again, and sticky) and careful calculations to be made about quantities of water, sugar ...

Why does she never write these things down? Why, indeed, did she not make the marmalade last week? Well may you ask. Could be the same penchant for distraction that has Mr B the musician back at the piano tinkering with an arrangement (don't ask) instead of getting to the church while it's still daylight for a spot of practice. He has already seduced the DG into running through a particularly challenging alto line (Tavener) for Midnight Mass - the other two singers are turning up tomorrow for the (only) rehearsal.

The DG finds herself thinking of Monty Python, as she shrieks at Mr B, currently in full composer/arranger/performer mode. 'Get up to the church!' (He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!) She tests the marmalade, which seems to wrinkle in a satisfactory fashion, slops it into more warmed jars, screws on the tops and leaves them to cool before attempting to wipe off the sticky bits. (More stickiness ...) The preserving pan is incandescent, and defiantly sticky. She fills it with hot suds and leaves it on the stove for when she feels stronger ... Oh God. The brandy butter ...

A friend asked me this morning how it came about that I felt I had so much to do when I was going away on Christmas Day. Quite apart from the fact that all I'm not cooking is the main course - and I always did that with a glass of champagne in my hand - I think part of the trouble is that just right now my head is full of poetry and music and I want to write and sing and .... and ....

Maybe I really need to be a student again. And 45 years younger.

But then I might have nothing to say.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thinking of angels

Oh, do not try to make it ordinary
or even think of credibility -
this visitation by the angel
or many
to shepherds in their freezing fields
or Mary -
no: I see hosts of snowy wings
descending in impossible sweeps
of power, I see
faces taut and gleaming, and those
piercing eyes that penetrate the soul
so that breath fails, and when it
passes there remains a vacuum -
and perhaps just a single

©C.M.M. 12/11

Dedicated to the choir of St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, for their singing of A Babe is Born (Matthias)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Solstice

The silver tree is a white ghost
in the dimpled white of last week’s snow
as the pale glow in the eastern sky
shows where the short-lived sun will rise
while night withdraws itself to where
a thin moon hangs above the hills.

The coloured lights of the coming feast
Shine in the silent streets below;
The last cries of the drunken night
Are echoes, and the drinkers sleep.
The birds wait, frozen on the tree.
A prayer stirs in the coldest heart.

© C.M.M. 12/11

Sunday, December 18, 2011

See amid the winter ... ice

8+1 in Holy Trinity

What word do I choose? What word expresses the elation of this afternoon? For all that words are my business, I don't have one. Singing just about captured it, but we've sung our songs and drunk our mulled wine and for at least 90 Dunoon people the Christmas season has begun in joy.

The weather was perfect - lethally so. From cars colliding on the bridge in the morning's ice to the resulting worries that no-one would venture out and up our hill, we were prepared to sing our songs to a hardy few at this afternoon's carol service, but before we'd even begun our warmup they were piling in. Aged ladies on zimmers negotiated the carpark and tried to get said zimmers into a pew (no, Jeannie, leave it at the end and slide in on your bottom), children came and went in santa hats, family and friends arrived in number along with several people we'd never seen before.

8+1 led the singing - Andrew suggested that we were now nine, but I tend to think there's a logic there - and did a bit on their own as well, taking us from The Christ Child's Lullaby to the Calypso Carol without batting an eye. The babies, toddlers and assorted weans kept amazingly silent during the music. I handed over my reading to my pal, but found that I could sing after all, laryngitis or no, and began to enjoy myself. And one reader near the end of the service had us all feeling we'd heard the Christmas story for the very first time, such was the impact of his reading.

And then there was mulled wine, and folk braved the cold to use the Portaloo, standing like the Tardis just outside the church, and car keys were passed around as people tried to leave and cars were juggled in the icy car park. There were indeed over 90 people in Holy Trinity today, and it felt warm and special and joyous whatever the thermometer said.

Deo Gratias!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Words, words, words...

I've made a belated discovery about the potency - or otherwise - of words. Words of carols, to be specific, and words of other choral music. Yes, words have always been my business, so you'd think I might have found this out sooner, but there you are.

It began, I think, with a phone call from the organist at the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae. Old friend that he is, he wanted to share with us the success at their Advent Carol service of a piece John had written years ago - Advent Invocation - to words that I had first scribbled down on the back of a bill as we drove over the moor road from the Claonaig ferry, years ago. He told us how he'd put the words into the order of service, and how he felt that had helped people's appreciation of the whole.

A short while after that, I found myself typing out the words of familiar Christmas carols and hymns (for a congregational booklet, since you ask - and yes, we have the licence!) in the corporate rush to get everything done on time. Even words that I had sung for the past half century suddenly had to be checked, punctuation put in the right places - and suddenly I began to see the words as if for the first time. Many of them are not what I would write for now, but I kept having sudden glimpses into the minds and imaginations of the original authors - and it was startling in its newness.

And then there was my own Advent Song. Following our friend's example, we asked for the words to go into the Order for Evensong, so that people could follow them as we sang. And for the first time I've had people talking about the words of the piece almost as much as they do about the music. Now, I feel that the music is by far the greater accomplishment, for I know how much goes into it as opposed to the sudden rush of blood to the head that produces the words - I'm not a hard worker when it comes to that sort of thing - so I feel slightly guilty. But I'm glad to have the piece taken as a whole, and appreciated as a whole, and thrilled that it seems to be doing so well on YouTube.

In a way, my Advent this year has been shaped by this piece. But I don't think that's a bad thing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mortal thoughts

I was at the funeral today of someone we've known all the time we've lived here, a stalwart of the kirk. The church was packed. And it got me thinking mortal thoughts, and that it's probably a lot easier for everyone if, as this friend did, you make a few stipulations before you pop off. So here we go:

First of all, if I'm still worshipping at Holy T, and if the building is still standing, that's where I want things to happen. Whoever takes the service must be known to do a good job with funerals - the present incumbent will do nicely, thank you, if I take my leave sooner rather than later - and be prepared to use the Liturgy (I kinda like 1987 or the Scottish Prayer Book, and I'd really like a Requiem Mass). If there is still an organ in church, it should be played by a good organist, and if neither is to hand I think I'll settle for a CD or two played over a decent speaker at a bold volume. (Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary and the Kontakion for the departed come to mind ...)

If there are good singers around, I'd like to think of them singing - Be still my soul, There is a Redeemer, that sort of thing - but if everyone is ancient/tone-deaf I think it'd be better if there was no communal singing at all.

But most of all, I don't want anyone to stand up and tell God about me. God knows all there is to know about me, and there is no need to labour the point. If someone wants to tell other people about me, that's fine, as long as it's someone who actually knew me. And I don't want to be wheeled out on a trolley, and I have a horror of crematoria.

I might even get round to writing this all down properly, somewhere - but for now, this is me letting off a small puff of steam while I'm still here. 'Nuff said, eh?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Off the hook...

Me, Morgane, Catriona and, yes, baby Anna on our camels, Mich... on Twitpic

Ok. I know I've been fretting about this holiday my offspring has taken his family on. But goodness, that does look like fun. And it's sunny!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advent song in audio

For all the lovely people who commented so appreciatively about the new anthem this week, I've made my first attempt at uploading a video to YouTube. The photos are all from this time of year, most of them taken from my window as a flaming dawn broke, or in Holy Trinity church where the recording was made. We're both delighted that people liked it as much as they did.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent Song

Look, God, look
in the vastness of your dark
hear this song
in the chorus of the world
where I sing
for the glory of your coming
held by love
as the music pours from me
a flame within
as the night falls around me
hear my prayer
and come through the darkness
hold me waiting
as you wait to be born.

©C.M.M. 11/05
I wrote these words six years ago. Advent for me, as I've probably blogged before, is a wonderfully Celtic experience born of darkness and tiny lights and being out on the edge of the hugeness of what to the ancients must have seemed a limitless sea. I cannot conceive of Advent in the Antipodes. Not long after I wrote it, Mr B, aka the musician John McIntosh, mentioned that he might like to set it to music, but it took him to this year to do it, and it was finished about three weeks ago. It is quite, quite lovely.

Today it was performed for the first time. And I really mean that: until this afternoon we had never heard it with the four voices for which it was written. But today we had an Evensong at Holy Trinity, a variant on the traditional Anglican choral service in which a quartet - including me and Mr B - sang the anthem, the responses and a plainsong psalm with a harmonised response for the congregation. The church was dimly lit - a combination of half our usual lighting, all the candles, the red heaters that give at least the illusion of warmth, and tiny lights clipped to our music stands - and the atmosphere electric. When we stood at the back of the church to begin with the Matin Responsory, the silence was absolute; when Andrew prayed, the silences between his words fell like a blessing; when we sang the Advent Song I felt once again the limitless power that takes over when we are all totally immersed in the moment. There was for me the additional dimension of hearing people take such care over my words - it's an awesome thing to write something and have it handed back to you so beautifully. 

Andrew's brief homily reminded us in no uncertain terms that Advent is not Christmas. I don't think anyone there this afternoon was in any doubt about the magic of the season: the exquisite tension of the waiting, the longing. The great sound of the final hymn - Lo, He Comes - came like an explosion of emotion. And when it was over, and we finally tore ourselves away from the place where the  barriers between earth and heaven had grown very thin indeed, it was snowing. 

On a day such as today, I would be no-one else, and nowhere else. 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

New passport, new pictures

My new passport arrived yesterday, and its predecessor, duly snipped, this morning. So I'll start by saying how impressed I am with the speed of the renewal process - under a fortnight if you use the Post Office check and send option. Ok, you have to pay for that, but when you've just booked a rather expensive holiday and then been told you need at least 6 months on your passport, the stress quivers into being. That's the good news. The bad news is that I hate my new, biometric passport. My old, bendy friend with the acceptable photo (taken when you were allowed to smile) has been replaced by a rigid booky with the ghastly - and slightly ghostly after processing - scowl of the aging me. The expression is probably very suitable - it's the "hurry the **** up. I'm going to miss my flight" face that most immigration people see, but it's not a pretty sight.

The pages of the passport are, in their own way, pretty. The first page - the one that talks about Her Britannic Majesty - has a picture of a bit of an oak tree, overhanging a row of slightly decrepit, sleepy-England cottages, in three colours. Or maybe four. The photo page is now near the front, and has an even more ghostly repetition of the photo facing it, while the other pages all have different images from all over this earth, this realm,this ... whatever. Some of them could be vaguely Scottish. They are wonderfully detailed in a pale, etched fashion, and I can only think they are to deter forgers.

I still don't like it, but I've realised I could probably while away time in the security queue by admiring the pictures. Always the silver lining ...

Friday, December 02, 2011

Ferry bad indeed

Today, the Firth of Clyde is calm after a week of wind and rain. The photo above was taken on Monday morning and shows the Argyll Flyer, with one of the Western Ferries in the background, passing Dunoon's East Bay heading for the pier into the wind that was gusting from the south and pushing the waves upriver. Study that photo, for it is one of a series that shows just how alarming this crossing can be even in a sea that is not particularly spectacular. It proved to be the last passenger ferry to Dunoon that day, and two days later it was again cancelled around the same time in much less wind. I tweeted about the second cancellation at the time, and had this response on Twitter from our MSP, Mike Russell:
Now, I appreciate the fact that a response was made, but feel the need to point out that it's not the correct response. Hence this post.

Argyll Ferries ( a subsidiary of Cal Mac) cannot possibly "up their game" with these boats. They are, quite simply, too small. It takes only a very moderate sea to have them pitching and rolling. When they do this, the sea sweeps over the limited deck area - so you can't go out for some fresh air without the risk of drowning. No, you stay in the cabin, unable to see the horizon, and hope desperately that you land before you throw up. Even in the summer, there were tales of mothers having to buy clothes in charity shops for their children who had puked down their own clothes on the crossing, and only yesterday we were told of elderly passengers unable to use the onboard lavatory for fear of falling and breaking a hip - and suffering the indignity of wetting themselves where they sat.

So much for the onboard conditions. But there are many more ramifications. The frequent cancellations mean that people in Dunoon can no longer trust the transport system to get them home if they travel to Glasgow - to work, to shop, to remind themselves that there is life outside the grey confines of their town - by train. There is a spanking new railway station under construction at Gourock, but at this rate few of us will use it, when the only way to ensure that you will get home at night is take your car and use Western Ferries. This flies in the face of all the rhetoric about thinking Green, using public transport if possible, saving fuel and not polluting our environment. As it stands, I would not even think of visiting Inverclyde hospital, which I can practically see from my house, without taking my car: a friend with a newly-broken wrist was stranded in Gourock on Wednesday morning on her way home from the plaster clinic, having just missed what turned out to be the last passenger ferry of the day. She had then to make her way to Western Ferries and have someone meet her with a car.

On Wednesday something else happened to confirm my growing suspicions that we were trapped in Dunoon. The road over the Rest and Be Thankful was closed; anyone driving from Glasgow would have an extra 26 miles to go. Last weekend we drove that road, in the fear that the ferries might be off - it's no fun to arrive at McInroy's point and find that you have to retrace your journey to the Erskine Bridge and on into the dark. The flashing lights, warning of increased landslip danger, had us beetling up the road into the hills with the tops of our heads cringing and the full beams on to see any obstacle that might have dumped itself on the road. The journey from Edinburgh seemed absurdly long, a good hour longer than usual in lashing rain and gales.

We realised this week that if this situation had obtained at the time when we moved to Dunoon in the early 1970s, we would never have come here. We realise with horror that a time will come when we are no longer willing or able to drive these roads in the dark - and that time is drawing closer. We feel like prisoners in the town our family grew up in. We have begun to think seriously of leaving before house prices go through the floor. The sad thing is that things were looking up - the number of people living here and working elsewhere, or vice versa, has increased, new houses have sprung up, the approaches to Gourock have improved. Now, suddenly, we've been dumped.

Many people - myself included - seem to have thought that an SNP government would care enough about the people who voted for them to give us a decent transport system. We're told till we're sick that we don't need another car ferry to the town. Fine. The shopkeepers would disagree, but I don't run a local shop and I'll stick to my own perceptions. We may not need another car ferry, because Western Ferries do a great job and run a decent timetable till a sensible time of night. But we do need a bigger passenger ferry, one that can cope with the rough seas and not go off at the first puff of wind. And if a bigger ferry could actually carry some cars just because it's a bigger boat - fine. Good ballast. We have the new pier, the breakwater ... and a couple of pathetically small pleasure boats to use it.

We deserve better. Otherwise this town will die.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Magic in the Mass?

I've just been at a Roman Catholic mass for the first time in about 20 years. It wasn't your normal mass - it was the priest's Silver Jubilee and the church was packed, even on a hellish evening when the wind threatened to tear the car door from my hand and maybe take the hand with it ...

But that's enough of the gruesome maunderings. It wasn't just the local faithful who turned out in number - there was a great group of clergy (including two familiar from Island Parish on the telly) and the bishop and friends and family and former flock, all crammed into a church that by the end of the evening was so hot that the woman in front of me sank to her knees not in a moment of extreme piety but to avoid passing out. Before the mass, we were given a quick run-through of the bits of the music that might be unfamiliar, though in truth only one hymn was known to me and I was reduced, in the absence of any music, to a feeble twittering.

But what chiefly interested me was the completely different atmosphere from what I'm accustomed to. (And no, I don't just mean the heat.) The extreme rapidity of proceedings - responses hardly out of your mouth before we were off again - the matter-of-fact tones used by all the clergy, bishop included, and the music which in its banality defied any attempt at aural learning. The women in front of me who chatted at intervals throughout the proceedings, regardless of what was happening. And the new liturgy, introduced, I believe, only last week, was extraordinarily like what we have in our 1970 Grey Book, but with confusing details that caught this unwary Piskie out. But why, in the name of all that's holy (and I mean that) do they talk about Jesus taking the "chalice" at the Last Supper? Would it be likely that the vessel used then, as opposed to what it held, would have been accorded reverence at that moment? I'd be interested to know the thinking there.

Above all, I felt the sense of ... confidence. This is a church that still behaves as if Christian faith is the norm, and church attendance even more so. It spills over into demeanour, voices, physical attitudes. It is very unlike what I know and love in my own precarious little church. And what worries interests me is that I would no more have been attracted by it than I was by its opposite number in Scotland. There's no magic.

And I need the magic.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Problem-finding mission

I've been spending some of this awful weather hibernating over the computer. Surprise, surprise. But every now and then I hit on something that starts me thinking - perhaps also a surprise - and that happened today. I was reading a post by a former pupil (I just throw that in) about his work in his church circles - a post that was in turn inspired by a TEDx talk given by one Ewan McIntosh. So far, so incestuous, you may think. But bear with me.

The talk suggests new ways of engaging with young people by asking them to find problems as opposed to solving problems made up for them by their teacher. (You'll remember, I'm sure, problems about how long it takes a man with a shovel to fill up a hole opposed to how long it takes four men who take a teabreak ...) Stewart's post talks about what church tells young people, instead of providing the wisdom to answer the questions they ask out of their own interests. But what if you work within a church that seems lacking in young people? What if you live in an area where the majority of young people leave at age 17 and don't return? Much of Scotland is like this - do you anguish over how to attract young teens, spend your emotional and physical energy on it, change the whole focus of your church, only to have the  school leavers disappear just as they become involved?

I'm not saying no to any of this, actually. Just asking. But in my diocesan travels I meet people of my own age and older who despair of their congregation's future because "we're all so old... we'll never attract young people". And in a way I think they're right - because we're presenting them with a ready-made expectation that they will somehow find themselves throbbing with youthful vitality and guitar music if they want to survive. What if we ask the people in our churches what they'd really like to see happen? What if we begin from the place where we recognise that in fact the new faces that occasionally turn up belong to people who are reaching the age when suddenly religion seems to matter more? That because we live in a semi-rural or even a remote area, the chances are that our new people are going to be retiring or downsizing or escaping from the stress of urban living - or are going to be the parents of babies who maybe need a respite from that particular stress (my own route into parish involvement all these years ago)?

The fact is that today we're in the middle of a strike brought on by threats to pensions - pensions that are having to stretch for many more years than in the past as people like me inconveniently refuse to shuffle off this mortal coil a couple of years after we stop earning. You can often bank on a good 20 years of useful life out of your average 50-something - and that useful life at a point where most people would confess to at least a flicker of timor mortis. Taking that as a starting point, what about setting out to engage with the problems and interests of that particular demographic? Instead of worrying a despairing bunch of elderly women - sadly, there are always more of them around - about how to fill their church with yoof, why not ask them to think of the problems that they really do understand - and then find the solutions for them?

And let's, whatever we do, let's help them all to discover how lively and unthreatening communication technology is. Let's take our tools of mission, the ones some of us no longer find any more remarkable than the telephone, and demonstrate how they can help the lonely, the bored, the housebound - how they can bring them together, share prayers and music and photos and chat and serious discussion and calls for help. And then they too could share ideas from TEDx talks ...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The first candle ...

Goodness, that was great! As I said in my last post, I love Advent - and it began today in fine style up the hill at Holy T. From the lighting of the first purple candle in the Advent Wreath - and if you look closely you will see that the new candles arrived in the nick of time - to the exuberant singing of "Lo, he comes with clouds descending", we were on an emotional rollercoaster, urged on by Kevin Our Bishop on his second visit to us.

Urged to pitch our tents facing the rising sun, intrigued by the vision of the newly-re-licensed Lay Team as tent-pitchers extraordinaires, delighted by +Kevin's vision of him throwing back his youthful locks in order to see and by his donning of a wonderful pink and purple "preaching scarf" (you can see it adorning his crozier in the sadly fuzzy pic taken in mid-sing at the end of the service) - by the time we staggered to the back of the church for coffee and buns we felt we'd been on a journey already.

Just as it should be, in fact - even if we have another four weeks to go.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Advent of Advent

The mornings are dark; the darkness returns early. Tonight it is chilly and more gales are threatened. The sea is restless and the trees groan. Living here, it seems unreasonable to have a tidy Advent wreath, with neat flowers or tidily trimmed holly or even - shudder - the plastic variety. No, we go more for the exuberant greenery that has not a little of the pagan about its appearance, complemented by the wonderfully suitable pink berries from the cotoneaster (I think) in the church grounds. Arguments have raged in past years about the colour of candles to be used in such a wreath, and I maintain to this day that God put that bush in the grounds to encourage us to the purple and pink variety, but that is another story.

The photo shows the initial stages of the process: find your greenery. I am unwilling to give the exact location of the trees that provided ours this year, as I and my accomplice should not really have been doing this thing, but we were careful - and some of the best trees actually had fallen bits that were ideal for our needs. On this occasion we deterred any witnesses by having with us a small and wailing child, though the best deterrent was probably the weather forecast. At the moment of the photo, I had just been deluged with water from the branches. You can see that I am a cheerful, uncomplaining sort ...

Anyway, the wreath is constructed and looks rather fine. Apart, that is, for the candles - the person who takes delivery of them had not yet produced this year's box, and we had to make do with purple ones, of which we have a goodly number left over from other years. (The uninitiated should note that when Hayes and Finch sends out Advent candles, they allow for people to have four purple and one white, as well as the pink one for Gaudete Sunday. If you use the pink one, you build up a stock of unused purple candles). Perhaps I shall manage a photo on Sunday if the new ones have turned up. If you really cannot control your impatience, you can see a past effort here, though I note that it looks considerably less fulsome than later offerings have become. And the berries look more red than pink. I shall endeavour to take a pic in daylight.

I love Advent. Can't you tell?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A plug - and a word of explanation

I've just stuck a new poem on Frankenstina. I haven't written much recently - it's a bit like getting up early to go swimming: once you're in the way of it it seems somehow easier, more natural, but if you've stopped for a bit it seems a totally unlikely thing to do. This one, however, occupied me in a hospital waiting room, where I was merely the chauffeur and not really involved in the reason for the visit. The room was full, most of the time - a swirling mix of Glasgow humanity, some obviously suffering, some quiet and staring into space, some flustered because they'd missed their names for whatever reason. We in fact missed the name of my friend, but that was because we were talking - four people for one appointment is far too social to be serious.

But when I was left alone, I couldn't resist a bit of the furtive note-taking of the "accursed observer", as Edwin Morgan would have it, and as the time passed I found it taking shape as the poem. The title is partly in amused homage to an old friend, who used to talk about the time he had once spent in what he called the Suffering General, in the old days when all the hospital was contained in the Victorian building that now fronts a building site where the new Southern General is rising among the chaos. However, it also reinforces for me the universality of suffering, and how we are all, from the most self-contained to the most vocally expressive, reduced to the same state of helpless passivity in the hospital setting, and how we will all, one day, arrive at the terminus that for now I am happy to forget.

Now - on with the journey...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taxed out of pocket

For years I never thought about income tax. It came off my salary, codes were issued, things remained much the same. I retired, new codes were issued, I still didn't have to think about it. Until I began working in an intermittent, self-employed fashion, and everything seemed to unravel. And strangely enough, I'm not actually referring to the tedious business of filling in an online tax return - though goodness knows it's enough to put me off working any more. But the very act of sending in a couple of returns seems to have done something to upset the tax machine (I believe they use computers to check things nowadays. That figures.)

In September I received two tax codes - apparently on the same SSPA pension. One was the usual code, one was unfamiliar. I phoned to enquire. It transpired that this was in fact an error; someone (something?) had got it into its head that I had two pensions and they were determined to tax the second to within an inch of its worth. They would send me another, correct code and all would be well.

Except that it isn't. Well, I mean. Because by the time they made this discovery - or I made it for them - it was only two days before the deduction was made from my pension, and it was too late to change it. The result was that my latest pension payment is some £600 less than it should be. Today I rang again, just to have the satisfaction of telling someone I was pissed off at this. The scenario I painted was that of the poor pensioner, with Christmas coming ... you get the picture. Were they maybe running a profitable enterprise on the side and calling it a mistake? I ended my litany of complaint with a question. "Don't you think that's iniquitous?" I asked. Long silence. I tried again. "Don't you think that's really bad?" Well yes, allowed the woman at the other end, it was not good but there was nothing she personally could do about it. The money would eventually be repaid, but I would have to do without it in the meantime.

Which of course I knew. I told her it would be really good to contact someone who could do something about it. Like a wee recompense?  She didn't know if that would be possible, but she gave me an address. She had no name to give me, as there was no single person who would deal with my case. I observed that this was a pity, as it was always good to have someone to nag by name, and that perhaps a bit of undivided attention on individual cases would avoid some of the errors that abound. She didn't reply.

The call was, of course, recorded for control purposes. The wifie wouldn't be likely to say anything too definite. But I may pursue that address, just for the hell of it. You never know ...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Remembering stories

This was where my parents had reached that evening...
I've been reading Rev Ruth's remembrance memories (if that's not tautologous) and found some of the memories that were part of my childhood flooding back. I was born just after the last World War ended, as anyone who's followed my father's Wartime Letters will know, so the memories are not my own, but they were among the first stories I ever heard. Stories, for example, of a time when, because they'd heard the All Clear and it was a beautiful evening, my parents went for a walk up Novar Drive in Glasgow. Just as they reached the top of the hill, the sirens sounded again and shrapnel began falling all around them. They clutched their tin hats to their heads and ran, apparently, laughing at the horror of it, back to their flat. This was a top flat in a red sandstone tenement, and their custom was to sit out the raids in the lobby press which protected them from flying glass (it was windowless) but precious little else. My mother calmed her nerves by doing the crosswords in old copies of the Glasgow Herald which were stashed in the cupboard, and her stomach with Rennies.

The rest of the inhabitants of 66 Novar Drive apparently congregated in the same cupboard of the bottom flat, four floors beneath them. History does not relate how they reacted my my father's assurance that they were all doomed there because if the building collapsed my mother's piano - now mine - would land on their heads and crush them all. (There is a full account of the worst action to hit Hyndland here.)

Tales like this, and that of the woman found carting her front windows out in two buckets and telling them that she now had a diamond-studded piano, made it all sound somehow exciting to a small child, but even then I could sense the horror of my mother's lone vigil in that same house after my father had gone overseas with the RAF, to live in a tiny tent in the Western Desert. Her own parents lived only 10 minutes' walk away, and she often stayed with them, but every now and again had to return home to look after it and ensure that it wasn't requisitioned for rehousing in her absence.

When the war was still a recent memory and the gap sites from demolished buildings still somewhere to play and the underground air-raid shelters even better, I used to wonder how anyone coped with being normal while it went on. I still wonder - just as I wonder how the families of serving soldiers do today. I think they were made of stern stuff, my parents - and I can't help thinking their life together after it was all over must have been an unthinkable joy for them.

And that's worth remembering too.

War Requiem

I listened this evening to the last part of Britten's War Requiem, in the recording featured here, digitally remastered and sounding amazingly new. I first experienced it in the spring of 1964, when it was performed in the Kelvin Hall arena in Glasgow, in that extraordinary time when Glasgow didn't have a decent concert hall after the destruction by fire of the St Andrew's Halls. I was studying at the time for Higher Music, and a few of us went to hear the work because one of our teachers was singing in the choir and had been talking about it for weeks.

In that one evening I learned a great deal. In the printed programme I was able to take home two new sets of words to set me alight: the poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of the Mass. Both were completely new to me. In fact, I had read hardly any twentieth century poetry at that time, and thought I didn't really care about poetry. And as for religion ....

Tonight I was struck once more by the complete aptness of the music for the words, for the scenes evoked, and for my mood. The pity of war, and the poetry - both are there. But listen to the Libera Me section and you'll hear the horror of war too - the wailing shells, the thudding guns, the pattering orisons of the rifles. No matter if history points an altered gun - the music transcends it.

If only there could be a requiem for war itself...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Another small discovery

I've mentioned before how wonderful old Penguin books are for travelling. Compact little things, with small print and little in the way of fanfare or decoration, they are just what is needed for a train journey to Glasgow, or even - as recently - a trip to the hairdresser, involving, as it does for me, a rather chancy ferry service and subsequent irritating waits when I've just missed one. The book on the right, Josephine Tey's mystery story The Franchise Affair, has been back and forward across the Clyde several times, resulting in a certain degree of dog-earing and culminating in yesterday's trip to wait for Mr B in Inverclyde Hospital. It was there that I finished it, and was so aware of the loss of my distraction that I began to make a nuisance of myself ...

But I digress. This is another book that's been on my shelf for years, and I don't know why I never got round to reading it. Published in 1948, it would have been completely contemporary in its language, mood and setting - former soldiers in all walks of civilian life but possessed of unlikely skills, life in a small English town returning to quiet normality, church and tea-shops the centre of life and gossip. The mystery concerns the accusations made against two women who live in a dilapidated big house, The Franchise, to the effect that they kidnapped and beat up the fifteen-year-old girl who accuses them. The burden of helping them falls on a local lawyer, whose quietly contented life is changed for ever as a result. The story was apparently based on a similar event from the 1800s.

I find it hard to pin down what makes me so sorry to have finished it. The language is quietly perfect, the descriptions of life in Milford, 'where the last post goes out at 3.45', effective and completely suited to be the voice of Robert Blair, bachelor, golfer and the senior partner in Blair, Hayward and Bennet. The details describe much of my childhood, so that the women in their hats and gloves step obediently into line and the subtle differences in class and breeding are as soothing as they would now seem hilariously anachronistic. Perhaps it's simply the business of feeling safe in a novel - safe from grammatical blunders as much as from any device of the plot.

The detection side of the story is less complicated and less requiring of any genius on the part of the main protagonist than many, with the result that once the last piece fell into place the result was a forgone conclusion, but the characterisation and the subsequent lives of the women and Robert himself were of sufficient interest to keep me gently involved. The novel seems at some time to have been made into a film, and I could see it being a TV series that would pander to the Downton audience (I know - there are 30 years between them, but ...). It is, however, the book I have enjoyed so thoroughly. I'm glad I discovered it, lurking there ...

Monday, November 07, 2011

Roundabout ...

Today I was made to face one of my lurking fears: the fear of roundabouts. Now before you ask, yes: I've been driving for 30-odd years, and I'm not a bad driver. I am, however, a Dunoon driver. I learned in Dunoon, I sat my test in Dunoon. I can cope with single track roads, and am quite happy on one of the most dangerous roads in the country, but motorways and big roundabouts leave me quaking and completely daunted, for there are to this day only two roundabouts - both of the mini variety - in Dunoon, and one of them is covered by Scottish Water travaux just now and has been for months. Not much practice there, then - and people tend to drive over the top of them anyway.

But today I had to undaunt myself and get to the Southern General hospital with a friend who needed to be there. The people who do such things have strewn the road through Greenock/ Port Glasgow with new roundabouts, and today whoever arranges the weather had provided a pea-soup fog to complicate my life. Throw into the mix the last roundabout before the hospital, with not one single road marking anywhere on it, and the confusion that took me back to the M8 via Braehead and its multiplicity of roundabouts, and you have the second circle of my personal hell.

But I did it. I didn't kill anyone, nor did I cause any accidents. Only one rotter hooted at me, and he wanted to speed anyway. No moral high ground for him. Funny thing is - it all looks so logical in my nice little picture. I have a feeling it's the other drivers I hate. I'd manage fine on an empty road ...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Accentuate the positive?

Chorus responds
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Been thinking about positives, perhaps to counter the foul day we've just had - rain and wind and low cloud hour after hour, though now there's a bright star mocking me as I look out before bed. But to the things that make life interesting, rewarding ...

Like the other night, when I went to Ayr to hear Voskresenije perform there. I have organised maybe as many as eight performances in Dunoon by this Russian choir, but this year I had to go elsewhere to hear them and to renew the friendship with the conductor that has built up over the years. So ... I am energised by live music, by interacting with people from other cultures, by the laughter that arises from imperfect understanding of another's language. And I enjoy bearhugs - big Russian ones.

What else makes a difference? I enjoy the company of clever people, people who have ideas, people who enjoy sharing them. I don't care if I've met them before - as long as the conversation begins, it is good. I love conversation.

Tomorrow brings another energising activity: a performance. I love singing, and tomorrow our female ensemble will perform in Dunoon and wow an unsuspecting audience with Songbird and other great songs. Adrenaline surges are good for the psyche.

And then there's a good book ... for I have always, as long as I can recall, been able to lose myself in fiction. And movies, with great sound.

All these can happen, and do, regardless of the weather. But I really could do with some sun, just to complete the picture. And less rain. J' attendrai ...

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief...

One of the very first expressions I learned in my youthful study of poetry came with the ballads that constituted much of the diet deemed suitable for fourteen-year-olds in the late '50s. "The willing suspension of disbelief", I was told, was the essential ingredient in the enjoyment of any drama, whether it was a ballad involving talking crows or a play whose action hinged on the say-so of a ghost. I was reminded of this in the immediate aftermath of the final episode of the wonderful Spooks on BBC1 last night, when more than one friend opined on Facebook that it was a bit predictable and unduly melodramatic, and now I can't start work without writing, briefly, about why I think this is sad.

I have to say that my disbelief was well and truly suspended - not just last night, but all through the series - though I must admit that, very properly, I don't have a clue what goes on in the machinations of 5. But what I am well-attuned to is emotional truth and good acting, and I'd say we had that in spades. Look at Harry. Last night the character was put through the trauma of having the woman he loved die in his arms, and the actor had to express grief in a manner in keeping with the character he played. Have you ever wondered how someone you know, perhaps fear, certainly respect, would react to an extreme situation? The acting in this scene was on a par with the greatest screen acting - different in scale, obviously, from that on a stage - in that all the rawness was expressed in near silence, with gestures redolent of hopelessness, disgust, love, compassion, loss ...

You get the picture? We don't need our drama to reflect our own narrow lives. Whether it's the best episodes of Star Trek - think of Picard in full Shakespearian mode in First Contact - or the death of Hamlet, we want catharsis: the purging of pity and terror so necessary to the dramatists of ancient Greece.

Maybe the trouble is the disengaged watching of drama that occurs in our own sitting-rooms. Maybe we're too used to discussing the action as it occurs, putting the TV on hold while we answer the phone or make some tea, playing computer games at the same time as we watch. Catharsis isn't possible without complete involvement. And I'd argue that complete involvement precludes the self-awareness that criticises technique - unless, of course, the drama itself is unworthy of attention.

But Spooks? Spooks was worthy all right.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Poets in a Landscape

A long time ago - we're talking half a century here - I found a dun-coloured hardback book in the school library and took it out for a fortnight. I took it out again later in the year as my mother hadn't finished it when I first brought it home, and I noticed that no-one else had borrowed it in the intervening months. I suspect it was only there because the author had been a pupil at the school. Later, I was to regret not having nicked it when I had the chance, but I was an honest adolescent and it didn't cross my mind. Years later, my mother spotted the same book, reissued as a "Lost Treasure" by Prion, and bought it as a present for me, unregcognisable in the attractive paperback illustrated here. And so Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape found its way onto my bookshelves in 1999, and I see that it's still possible to buy it online.

It has taken me till now to re-read it in its entirety. Maybe it's not a book to be galloped through with the voracious speed of my teenage self, for apart from the section on Catullus I recalled little of it. Highet, whom my parents apparently knew at university, draws pictures of the great Roman poets - Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Propertius, Ovid, Juvenal - in their own locations, visiting their special places in Italy, seeking out ruins and rumours, legends and literary fragments, recreating the lives they led and the people they encountered.

At the first time of reading this book, I had visited only one of the places he describes. The so-called Grotte di Catullo at Sirmione, which the poet know as Sirmio, are in fact the ruins of a huge lakeside house of a later date than the poet, but the peninsula jutting out into Lake Garda is an evocative place, and even as a teenager I found myself quoting Tennyson as I walked round 'sweet Catullus' all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio' - for Highet is never afraid to complement the works of the ancient poets with their more recent echoes in the poems of others.

The book takes us through the Italian countryside and the boiling streets of Rome, beside the cool springs of Clitumnus and the echoes of the now-ruined Forum, translating chunks of Latin poetry into his own, preserving the metre and as far as possible the tone, so that someone with no knowledge of Latin could still feel they were within touching distance of the works as well as the life of ancient Rome. His description of hot exploration of the Italian countryside as he sought out unremarked ruins is as powerful as his evocation of the Dark Ages, when the glories of the Palatine Hill were ruined and buried and dogs scavenged around the capitals of hidden columns. A fairly recent visit I made to Rome has left me with powerful impressions of my own to recall - including pictures painted of the period before archeologists started work on these strange mounds and apparent caverns, but above all it is the sound of the poetry that has returned.

Whether I was realising how the metre of popular songs worked - as exemplified by a line about Julius Caesar: Watch your wives, you poor civilians, here comes
              Baldhead Lover-Boy!

or, as I suddenly recalled it from Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March:
              Here he comes, the bald whore-monger - Romans
              lock your wives away! -
or taking delight in some erudite explanation of some facet of language that I had never previously considered, this book proved a joy.

I may even get down my copy of Horace Odes (Odes lll, if you're interested) and see if I remember how the Latin works ... O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I've just been watching the film of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I haven't read the book, and I'm interested to read a review tonight which reminds me that it is "a holocaust book for children." I don't think I for one moment thought of the film as anything but adult, despite the fact that the events are seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. Perhaps viewing his world through the lens of a camera meant that I was free to interpret in my own way, find my own knowledge flooding in with the images - like that of the smoke from the death camp rising foully over the trees - in such a way as to encapsulate the child's innocence and look over and around it.

I found it very powerful, this film. I'm fascinated by the apparently normal family lives of Nazis immersed in the horrors of the Final Solution, by the glimpses of a humanity suppressed - perhaps permanently - by the demands of the job of extermination. The film was full of foreboding, from the moment when the family of the Kommandant arrives at their new house in the country, a gloomy, echoing building of small windows - one of which, in the boy's bedroom, commands a distant view of what he thinks is a farm - right through to the end which I couldn't help wishing would not be so. The gradual realisation by the boy's mother as to what exactly was happening in the camp, the growing tensions within the family as the 12 year old daughter became Nazified - these, I felt, were explored in the film at an adult level, being conveyed less in words than in expressions, gestures, the glance of an eye that was quickly averted.

The tension of the last fifteen minutes of the film, and the understated conclusion, left me wrung out and sad to an extent I had not expected - more, even, than the much bigger sweep of Schindler's List. I'm glad I recorded it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Quietus made with a bare bodkin?

In P.D. James' excellent novel The Children of Men, there is a scene where the protagonists come upon a Quietus - the moment when a group of old people for whom there are no longer enough carers are gathered to process quietly into the sea. Bingo - another lot of old folk gone.

I was irresistibly reminded of that this morning when I attended the local Red Cross centre to get my annual flu jab. My lovely GP practice had taken over the centre to process its old and vulnerable with maximum efficiency, and to that end we were handed a small ticket - a raffle ticket, come to think of it - with a number on it and told to sit and wait in a room packed to the gunwales with ... old people. It reminded me of buying cheese at the deli counter in the supermarket. "Don't worry, they're moving pretty quickly," we were told.

And they were. Every minute or so a doctor or a practice nurse - all casually dressed, as in a dress-down Friday only it's Sunday sort of fashion - would appear at a door and shout above the hubbub of what sounded like a particularly jolly party "number 120 please" or whatever, and another old person (sorry to keep saying this, but they were - none of the lot we saw appeared to be of the young vulnerable variety, apart from an obviously pregnant girl) would hurry off, arms bared, jackets, jerseys and cardis flapping in their wake. Mr B and I studied the forms we had signed. The surgery logo (right) suddenly seemed sinister: At the bottom of the road there is the promenade. Seagulls wheel overhead. We have listened to your heart. It is time to go ...

Suddenly it's me. 127. I go into a room where there are several tables - old school desks? - and sit beside one. The jab, done while the nurse and I share my growing mirth at the situation, is virtually painless and over in seconds. She says nothing about having a wee seat for a bit - this is something several people, including Mr B, are told - and I exit, still giggling.

Spared for another year, I guess ...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birthday remembering

My mother, Margaret Findlay, would have been 100 years old today. She died seven years ago, and at the time I was still working, didn't write a blog and owned a computer that has since had a brain transplant - another one. So I can't find what I said at her funeral, though I was content that it summed up much of what I knew of her. But we're no longer in the place of funerals and what precedes them; I'm back today thinking of the mother I knew when she was younger than I am now - as in the accompanying photo. I think it comes from the mid-1960s, having been taken, by me,  in Dubrovnik. She is obviously smiling primarily at some remark being made by my father, who was usually behind the camera, but is giving me that familiar look of attention-while-something-else-is-on-my-mind. She loved these holidays in the sun; both my parents turned effortlessly brown without ever sunbathing and were far more relaxed and cheerful than I ever was.

A life of 93 years plainly takes more than a single blog post to recall. There are insights on the blog I've just finished, insights into the person who was there before I was born. So today I'll celebrate instead the memory of someone who was, I now realise, incredibly wise and sensible in her dealings with the world and with people. Some people have a habit of asking, in moments of stress or irritation, 'What would Jesus do?'. I find, as life flows around me in currents that pull me in directions I could never have imagined, tugging me into situations where I too need wisdom, that I have changed that question. 'What would Mother do?' I ask.

I think she'd laugh at me now. I wish she was still here to ask. I wish I'd known the serious, clever 19-year-old in the graduation picture on the right - she got bored early in 6th year at school, left at 16, got into Glasgow to do an MA, and graduated before she was 20. Perhaps that wishing is what populates Heaven for some believers - maybe for more than admit to it. But as it is, I'll remember, today especially, I'll go on trying to emulate that hard-won wisdom, I'll be glad I made her laugh, glad that she liked my poetry even though it came as a late surprise to her.

And tonight, we're having a party - her two daughters and the sons-in-law Margaret Findlay was so grateful to have. We shall drink champagne in a toast to a woman who signed the pledge in early childhood but who relented in her 80s when we began taking bubbly to her birthday lunches. Here's to you, mother - cheers!


Today I would have phoned -
 wished to share the small
 details of my life, the
 safe return, the laughing
 at the rain which fell
 as if the Flood would come.
 But had I rung the number
 as familiar as my name
 you would not be there.
 A stranger’s voice would say
 your words, and the strangeness
 would be too much to bear.
 And contemplating this
 a glacial shifting in my soul
 gave promise that in weeks not lived
 the frozen tears would find the way
 and spill into a distant sea like
 drops into the ocean of my love.

May 2005

Friday, October 07, 2011

Macs I have known

It was coming - we all knew that. It was just a matter of when. But knowing someone is terminally ill doesn't really lessen the impact when the end comes, not even when one has been with the person almost to the end. So it was, I think, with the death of Steve Jobs. And though my only connection with the man was the tenuous one of knowing that my #1 son had interviewed him once, I have been using Macs more or less from the start.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the teacher who had started the latest incarnation of the Dunoon Grammar School magazine left for another post, and the then pupil editor, one Neil McIntosh, decided it would be efficient if I were to take over from him. After all, I could check copy accurately, and I had a car - as well as being sufficiently malleable to run down the road in said car to retrieve any important kit forgotten by the editor. At that time the school had two Apple Macs sitting in the maths classroom that was the hub of computing in the school, and as I took over the pupil editorial team had decided they would start in-house publication of the Pupils' View instead of taking copy down to the local paper. Somehow they learned/taught themselves how to use Macs instead of the BBCs that had previously reigned, and the empire was born.

As these machines were, in theory, portable, and had custom-made carry-bags to facilitate carriage, we tended to have one home at the weekends, and gradually I became familiar with a mouse and such things as hypercard. When #1 son left school and started on a journalism course, he acquired his own - by now a Mac 2 Classic - which we still have, in its box, in our loft. Later, we substituted a Mac LC for the Amstrad we had at home and the ZX Spectrum on which the budding journo had started at the age of 10, and in the fullness of time connected it to the Internet.

The Pupils' View eventually made enough money to purchase its own computer, and a shiny blue bubble of an iMac appeared in my classroom. So desirable was it that we chained it to the desk with steel cables, and life was never quite the same again. I learned to use Adobe Pagemaker, and was able to teach other non-geeky types - literary, but non-geeky - to use it. The empire grew, as did the collection of Mac Classics, discarded by Business Studies and the like, along my back wall - still functioning well enough for the juniors to produce copy and my senior students to type their RPRs on.

Currently, we own two iMacs - one each. Still sitting ready but disused in the loft is the LCII. I have a 6 year old laptop that saved my sanity recently when my iMac needed a brain transplant, and I have an iPad. I have used PCs - they were issued to staff for registration in my last years in teaching, and I used a friend's to upload photos and Skype home when I spent a month in New Zealand. I was able to make them do my bidding - but they seemed unfamiliar and clunky and on one occasion I and the owner of the PC were unable to locate a bunch of photos after I'd downloaded them.  I was not impressed, and had not the slightest desire ever to own one.

People much cleverer than I at this sort of thing seem devoted to their PCs and don't like Macs at all. But I have never had to struggle, never even had to use one of #2 son's much sought-after Mac Guides (produced about 1990). I've found that once I'd seen something work on a Mac, I've been able to do it - or even to work it out after a word at a Teach Meet or whatever. Nowadays, I don't know how I could live as I do without the communication I enjoy with people all over the world. I'd be an increasingly grouchy pensioner stuck in Dunoon with an increasingly useless passenger ferry unable to cope with travel three seasons out of four. (Don't say a word).

So, for my life as it is, I have one person to thank. That person is Steve Jobs.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A cold turkey

Well, that was interesting. As I've mentioned in passing, I recently had to cancel a holiday because of back trouble. A low disc - L3, I believe - had misbehaved sufficiently to put pressure on a nerve, causing referred pain in front of my hip and down my thigh. I still have a large numb area on one leg, akin to the sensation caused by a dental anaesthetic. The pain was bad enough to require strong pain relief, and I ended up taking co-codamol 30/500 in gradually decreasing numbers for the best part of three weeks. The relief it gave, especially in the early days when I took two tablets every 6 hours and 400mg Ibuprofen every 8 hours, was immense. No pain - just a dreamy vagueness and lethargy. Great.

I took the last dose of co-codamol on Sunday evening. Monday I felt smug, stupidly - my back seemed better almost all day, and I only needed a couple of plain paracetamol to be able to sleep in comfort that night. Tuesday, however, was another matter. I had to go to three back-to-back Diocesan meetings in Oban, and by the end of the two-hour car journey to get to them (and I wasn't driving) I felt sure I was catching flu. Paracetamol took the edge off the aching shoulders and legs and the pounding headache, but failed to deal with the sudden floods of heat, the stomach cramps, the burning soft palate. I became less and less able to focus on the matter in hand, and by the time we got to discussing diocesan communications, I was barely civil.

The drive home was made bearable by easy conversation, drinks of water, and curiously strong mints. By this time I had considered the possibility of withdrawal symptoms, but feared I might instead have infected a whole room-full of Piskies - and the diocese of Argyll and The Isles can't afford to lose people in this manner. I headed straight for Google and found reams of stuff from people whose intake of codeine had far exceeded mine, but whose symptoms were all familiar. Some of the comments on blogs and help forums (fora?) made sensible suggestions about dealing with the situation, and several were adamant about going cold turkey - not tailing off the drugs, not taking another one just to get through the night.

Today has been better, though I still had the headache at breakfast. Now, at 11.30pm, I note that I've reached the magic 72 hour figure which should mean it's over, more or less. Apparently that's what it takes to get rid of the last traces. I was prescribed the codeine by one doctor and told how often to take it, and in what combination, by another. It was wonderfully effective. But I think I would have liked to have been told how I would feel when I stopped taking it, and perhaps advised how best to deal with the symptoms of withdrawal.

And I shall never again wonder how people become addicted to the stuff.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Being fair to the taxman?

I completed my online tax return the other day. It reduced me to weeping and gnashing of teeth, and it took me all morning and made my lunch late. That's bad. All the years I was employed as a teacher, I only did perhaps a couple of returns before they brought in PAYE, so this assault upon me as a result of doing the self-employed thing came as a cruel awakening.

Part of the cruelty comes in the letter the tax people send you - the ones that tell you to get it done by October if you're filing a paper return, but allow you to the New Year for the online stuff. It arrives in May.  The language is especially minatory, despite their attempts to lighten up by introducing the contractions of an informal register. So: This notice requires you, by law, to send us a tax return ... but you have till three months after the date of this notice if that's earlier. I would disapprove of that, I think, were I to attack it in a professional capacity ... but I digress. The greatest threat is yet to come.

If you don't file (that wee informal touch again) by the deadlines, you will have to pay penalties and interest as follows.
One day late and you will be charged an initial penalty of £100 (even if you have no tax to pay or you have already paid all the tax you owe).
Three months late and you will be charged an automatic daily penalty of £10 per day, up to a maximum of £900.
Six months late and you will be charged further penalties, which are the greater of 5% of tax due or £300.
Twelve months late and you will be charged yet more penalties, which are the greater of 5% of tax due or £300. In particularly serious cases you face a higher penalty of up to 100% of the tax due.

So why am I making all this fuss? (It is the law, after all). Two reasons. The first is that my fellow-teachers and others in PAYE schemes, who never have to deal with their own taxes, might be interested to see what they're missing out on. But secondly, and far more importantly, is the lack of efficiency of the Tax Office.

Mr B got a letter on 9th March, in which HM Revenue and Customs told him that he had underpaid tax. Apparently the SPPA had given them the wrong tax code, and they intended simply to take the money. Several phone calls and letters later, they are still "dealing with it". The most recent phone call was prompted, I may add, by the sight of the letter I had with all these penalties listed for late submission.

Perhaps I am merely being naive. Perhaps in fact HM Revenue and Customs find their tax sums as difficult to deal with as I do. Perhaps we ought to cut them a bit of slack and not expect them to be as efficient as we're expected to be.

But I find myself incapable of such magnanimity. And the worse of it is that I shall now be hounded to my grave by these people, whether I ever work again or not. I'll get back to you on this. As the tax office folk say on the phone - bear with me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The silver linings

Though today I'm feeling rather less sunny than I have the past two days, I need to record that a couple of silver linings exist in the cancellation of our holiday. The first became evident on Sunday afternoon, when Holy Trinity was filled with regulars and visitors from all over the place - including Hungary - for a marriage blessing and a baptism. After a dreadful accident at work, the effects of which are still very obvious after four months, Csaba thrilled us all by reading Psalm 139  in an electrifying manner, and was able to stand alongside Melinda as their marriage was blessed. It was joyous and moving, and the music for the occasion - Hungarian and Scottish -  could be live rather than on the iPod because I hadn't hauled the organist off to Sicily. As for the Hungarian dancing at the bunfight afterwards - there will be photos, and a wee movie, once I finish retrieving the important things on my convalescent computer - it was as unexpected as it was wonderful.

The second plus for me was being able to attend the funeral of Kenneth Elliot. One of the discoveries of my time at university was the pleasure to be found in singing the music of 16th and 17th century Scotland, a tiny portion of which I had studied for my Higher Music. At that time, Mr B and I were founder members of a vocal ensemble - The New Consort of Voices - and a fond memory is of an evening when the eight of us were invited to Kenneth's house to drink wine, eat olives and sing the music he had been working on. Later in his life, he too looked back to that particular bunch of students - because we were enthusiastic, young, sang without wobbles and sang his stuff the way he wanted it. At least, we did before the wine had flowed too freely ...

Yesterday, five of that Consort were at the funeral in St Mary's Cathedral in Great Western Road, Glasgow. Yes, there were other people too, but we were remembering a particular era, a time of discovery and handwritten manuscripts, of late nights and laughter, of traumas involving delicate harpsichords and wayward visiting counter-tenors. We marvelled at how old we were becoming, and how some people looked just like their fathers (these tended to be people we hadn't seen since uni). The funeral service was beautifully put together; a scratch choir under Alan Tavener sang just as they should have, and George McPhee was the perfect organist.  I was particularly struck by Kelvin Holdsworth's words - as he told us, he had only met Kenneth at the very end of his life, but he struck exactly the right note in a manner we all appreciated. (And no, there was no pun intended - I never think of good puns when I need them). Kenneth would have approved of the whole thing.

Today I'm paying for the fact that I couldn't spend ten minutes in every hour lying on my face in the last two days - but to compensate I realise even more forcibly that I couldn't have survived a walking holiday such as we had planned. We shall go another time - but these silver linings were one-off affairs. Etna can wait.

I hope ...

Later: I was waiting to retrieve a photo for this post, and somehow it's arrived here after midnight. I've not gone crazy - just think Tuesday rather than Wednesday for the posting date!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Marking time

How strange life feels when you put everything on hold. Right now, I should be somewhere in the air above Europe, en route for a walking holiday in Sicily. Instead, I am sitting like an Edwardian duchess on a hard chair blogging through a drug-induced haze. I'm not even at church this sunny morning, as we shall be there this afternoon celebrating a baptism and a blessing as well as the Eucharist.

And all because of an afternoon's weeding. Two weeks ago today I engaged in a fairly ladylike fashion with the weeds sprouting among the white stones that are supposed to be a decorative feature of our front garden. They are devastating on the knees if you kneel down, so I didn't. I walked over the stones, bending from the waist.


After a week of ruefully admitting that I had a sore back, I took myself to the GP. And went back two days later. And made myself ill with one lethally effective painkiller, saw a wonderful physiotherapist, went back to the GP and had an Xray. Finally - or maybe not - I had an NHS24-arranged visit from an out-of-hours doctor when I had spent an entire night sitting up playing bubbles on the iMac and feeling sorry for myself.

And here I am. I've turned into a Zombie. I'm told they're frightfully in these days. I find myself relieved that I'm not crammed into a tourist flight, not about to spend a week in a hard Sicilian bed, not having to be cheerful when I feel glazed. I shall be able to recover my ailing iMac a week earlier than planned, and I shall be glad to see my friends Csaba and Melinda celebrate their baby and their already wonderful marriage.

Are these, then, the silver linings to this particular cloud? Perhaps. But we shall have that holiday in Sicily. Just let me get my back sorted ...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Poetry roulette

What a brilliant app the Poetry Foundation one is! I downloaded it on my iPad a few weeks ago at the suggestion of Ewan McIntosh, and on this grey morning I've been indulging myself in having a spin among the poems - hundreds of them.

The format reminds me of the games we used to play with these little folded bits of paper that I never know how to fold to make them fit on the forefingers and thumbs so that a few movements would tell you your fortune - or whatever. Only this is much more sophisticated. Two 'wheels' of concepts at the top of the screen can be individually spun, so that one spin might bring you "optimism and spirituality" and another "love and grief". For each combination there appears, instantly, a list of poems - in some cases over a hundred titles - and at a touch, the chosen poem is there on the screen.

You can add any poem you particularly like to your favourites, and the complete accessibility of the resources makes the app a joy to use.

When I left my last teaching job, I wondered fleetingly where I would find the sudden surprises that browsing through the latest anthology to arrive in the department could bring. Now I wonder no more. I shall never reach the end of this trove of treasure.

And, chums, it 's free.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad