Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A very Pisky hoolie

Choir at work
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Other people have posted about last Saturday's lovely service in the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae - not least Dean Swift (I love writing that!) whose day it was - or, more accurately, whose half-day it was: the Provost of the Other Cathedral was also being installed as a Canon, and all stops were duly pulled out for the occasion. So let's start with the image that cliché evokes: the organist for the day was Jonathan Cohen, remembered fondly by a certain age-range as the pianist in Playaway. He came from London specially to play for the Cathedral Choir, all of whom had also made a special effort to be there - from Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as  from Dunoon. We took with us another Dunoon alto who had never been in the cathedral before - she was well bowled over. As usual, we had to rehearse first - a scratch choir is an interesting beast, especially when there are no more than 3 voices to a part. The excitement of what is going on is amplified, if you like, by the frisson of wondering if we all know the notes well enough to come in as and when required, and if that person who claims not to have received the music in advance will lose his/her nerve at the crucial moment. So that, chums, is where my main photo comes from - that intense rehearsal when we not only deal with the music, but whether the new singer will find a red robe to fit without tripping her up - and would it be advisable to process in single file because of all the extra bodies in the nave?

Readers of this blog will know that my association with the cathedral goes back over 40 years, and that I have always sung there, and always in small groups. But there were people there to whom it was all new, and I found myself almost envying them the thrill of the experience, the whiff of incense, the sight of the candles and the gleaming brass, the pattern on the organ pipes from the sun through the windows. On the other hand, I had the thrill of singing Mr B's new anthem - a short setting of the Celtic Blessing "May the road rise to meet you" that had the hairs rising on the back of several necks.

I mentioned, jokingly, the Other Cathedral - the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Oban. Time was when I regarded Oban as a distant place where all the big diocesan happenings took place, but in recent years we have seen a distinct growth in the recognition of the special nature of the Cathedral of The Isles - not least because of the obvious delight felt by successive bishops in being there. A diocese operates most successfully when everyone in it feels tied in some way to everyone else, whether through personal ties made at Synod and meetings, or through the common links to the Bishop and his clergy. (I say "his" not out of sloppy traditionalism but simply because we have not yet appointed a woman to the post). And it will flourish the more when everyone feels welcome at both of the  cathedrals and in every church in Argyll and The Isles.

Our visiting alto's enthusiasm for what she had been a part of bubbled out all the way home through the rain and the rising gales. And what had made the biggest impression? Not +Idris' sermon, not +Kevin, not even the music she had so enjoyed singing - wonderful though each of these had been in their own distinctive ways. No. "Everyone was so friendly - and seemed so happy," she said.

And this is a mission tool that every charge can operate. Smile, children, smile ...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An anniversary

George Douglas, 1888-1973.
It's a while since I first mentioned George James Cosmo Douglas, onetime Dean of the diocese of Argyll and The Isles (left) on this blog. Over five years, in fact. It is forty years and three days since he died, and forty years ago today since his funeral. That makes it exactly forty years since I stopped being a mere musician, falling off my metaphorical and Pauline donkey in the choir stalls of the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae while singing (in English) the Kontakion for the departed and wondering what on earth I should do next. The only person I could have asked about this transformation was lying a couple of feet in front of me in his coffin at the first funeral I'd ever attended - let alone the first funeral of a friend as distinct from an aged rellie.

Poster in Largs ferry terminal
On Epiphany Sunday this week, the St Maura singers - three of our four the same as on that day in 1973 - travelled to Cumbrae to sing an Epiphany service that was also a memorial. On the altar was a copy of this photograph of The Dean (no-one ever called him anything else) and his missal, bound for some extraordinary reason in a piece of the coronation robe of Tsar Nicholas ll. It was an extraordinary experience - so many layers, so many years, telescoping in the candle-light. I don't know if I would have been surprised to hear the sound of tackety boots on the tiles, to see The Dean in his big overcoat and ancient, oversized dog-collar come purposefully through the door on some errand. Looking at the photo, I can see even now that I would have been almost as terrified as I was then of getting things wrong, or speaking out of turn, or talking nonsense. He never quite addressed me as "Bloody fool" (his description of the hapless Mr B when he put the wrong fuel in the Aga), but even now, I realise, he'd be old in my eyes, and formidable.  Who couldn't be in awe of someone who was eleven when Brahms died, who had served on the Western Front and never talked about it?

The day of his funeral was rather like today - grey, cold, still. We travelled down from Glasgow to Cumbrae, noting the number of clerics on the ferry as we sailed. The four of us rehearsed while the clergy gathered, changed, did what clergy do. We felt bleak. Death and funerals were still strange to us - not least to me, who never darkened the door of a church other than to sing. There was no sense of the epiphany that lay ahead for me. Afterwards, the coffin was driven slowly to the town pier through Millport, the few people on the streets stopping, taking hats off, bowing heads. The sailors carried the coffin onto the MV Keppel and laid it on the deck. The Bishop, Richard Wimbush, stood beside it in his duffle coat, absurdly boyish black hair blowing in the wind. We had lunch in Nardini's to fortify us for Greenock Crematorium - another first, and deeply depressing until the assorted clergy took over. I had no idea what would become of me and the tiny flame that had been kindled. We didn't talk about how we felt, and we didn't talk about the Dean. It was too much that he was gone.

Altar, Cumbrae, with the Dean's missal
As to his lasting legacy - for it's easy to write someone off as belonging to a past era, someone who had a hand in writing the "Grey Book" liturgy that is now so old hat - well, I'm part of it, I guess. So is my friend Alastair Chisholm, who has done so much to keep the Cathedral alive and bring new people to love the place. Things seemed very straightforward before that requiem mass, forty years ago, and have become steadily more complex since. It's still quite a journey. But I think George our Dean might have been pleased.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The road goes ever on and on ...

A very holiday thing to do - though for the past few years one we've kept till the day the schools went back - is to make the trip to Glasgow to see a movie in a big cinema with huge screens and wrap-around sound and comfy seats. Yesterday we saw The Hobbit, not necessarily because I thought it would be hugely gripping - after all, I think I first read the book in 1968 - but because I couldn't ignore the fact that the sounds and visuals would be stunning.

And stunning they were. There were some amazing interiors - the dwarves' kingdom, the huge lair of the trolls - but what I loved most was the sweep of the New Zealand landscape. And of course there are some amazing actors in this film, and there was the distraction of identifying who lay behind the beards and noses of the dwarves: sometimes it was only the voice that gave the clue. Richard Armitage's name (or Lucas North, if you like) only came to us later; James Nesbitt and Ken Stott were vocally unmistakable. Martin Freeman (Dr Watson)  makes a very convincing Bilbo while Sylvester McCoy, FP of Dunoon Grammar School, is a batty addition to a trio of wizards (Iain McKellen and Christopher Lee, natch, are the others). I never clocked Barry Humphries; if you haven't seen the film yet, see if you do.

And the film itself? Well, there's too much of it. That's it, really - the book can be read from cover to cover in a matter of hours, and yet it is given the same three-film treatment that the massive Lord of the Rings had and needed. (It took me an eight-day illness to read that way back in my youth). So there were moments when I found myself thinking "get on with it", and there were, as Mr B observed, too many creatures rushing about and too many bangs and thumps: both are thrilling in small helpings but tedious when they recur every time someone stops talking. (My father used to relate how he fell asleep while a spectator of the Battle of Alamein, in his signals truck). I realise that three films make far more money than one, and when you've hauled all these actors to NZ and set everything up there's a temptation to get more out of them - apparently action scenes from the desert war movie The Desert Fox  reappeared in The Desert Rats a couple of years later - but it makes for a thinning of the narrative, a slowing down of pace that has to be compensated for. So we have racing wolves (scary teeth), racing rabbits (scary ride for Radagast) and hordes upon hordes of racing Trolls.

The opening of the film makes a neat - but over-long - reference to the first part of Lord of the Rings, and the music provides a subliminal linkage, landing me with an earworm that lasted the rest of the day. I knew I had been sucked into Middle Earth again when I saw the departing audience as trolls flooding down dark stairways, and found myself looking behind me in the street outside when an unexpected noise seemed suddenly threatening. But it's a lazy sort of enjoyment, the sort of enjoyment I sought when I re-read Lord of the Rings over the years as an antidote to stress instead of tackling a new book (I must have been incredibly stressed - I think I've read it seven times). I didn't see it in 3D, and I'm glad - wearing two pairs of specs for so long would have been incredibly tiring, and would also have brought on one of my heads...

Don't be put off, however, if you enjoyed the other trilogy. But do treat yourself to a good meal after the movie rather than before. You'll stay awake better, and you'll be pleasantly peckish.

Unless you go for the popcorn ...

I'm writing this on Tolkien's birthday, by the way.