Sunday, December 21, 2014

Crisis? What crisis?

In what has been described as the biggest crisis to engulf it in living memory, over 50 Scottish Episcopalian Church (SEC) clergy – around one in six – have signed a letter condemning the stance of their bishops over same-sex marriage.

 Gosh. Two pieces in the paper - The Herald, even - in one week. Almost as good as the SNP ... But I get ahead of myself. Normally the Scottish Episcopal Church doesn't generate much news, but what the Bishops' Statement on Equal Marriage started in Wednesday's paper rumbled on into the weekend with a new story, the tale of an insurrection in the ranks.

 It's this word 'crisis' that interests me. For a start, it's a crisis that hasn't engulfed an awful lot of the worshippers that turned out this morning - the conversations I've had on the subject could be numbered on the fingers of one hand, and these were all with interested parties or senior clergy. But I know all about it, I've been part of the process that - surprisingly - ended up in this odd place, and I simply don't feel it's a crisis. Quite the reverse.

The fact that a good number of clergy - and, as the paper points out, a good proportion of those serving the church - have seen fit to think for themselves and say No, this is not what we think right, and have felt sufficiently confident in their own minds to stand up and be counted, this is not a crisis. This is a high point. This is exciting. This is the SEC doing what its own publicity says it does. 

When I posted the letter here the other day, I said I was proud of the signatories. I'm still proud. And I'm proud to belong to a church that numbers such people among its leaders. I'm thrilled that suddenly we're talking about the elephant in the room, and that conversations - real conversations, not this ridiculously neutered Cascade malarkey - are beginning to happen in real life, in churches, in sitting rooms, and not just on social media. We're showing that our faith can actually inform our decisions, guide our words, make us brave. We're showing that we can think for ourselves, as mature Christians who recognise that a great historical mistake is in danger of being perpetuated.

What I'm looking for now is some brave leadership from the top, from the Bishops who are supposed to provide a focus for this thoughtful and courageous process. It's still not too late for these men to recover some moral authority by showing some of the courage that their priests and lay leaders have demonstrated. 

And then the papers can stop talking about crisis and talk about joy instead. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Waiting for the dawn

The longest night is very close now. The dark comes before we know it, and lasts so long. On these western fringes our fires burn small – pinpricks of light in the wide darkness. The warmth of summer, the plenty of autumn – these are memories. Food is hoarded against the midwinter feasting, and after that we will hunger a little.
If we look to the north, we see only the night. Further west there is the wide restless sea – and nothing. In the southern sky, there is a bright star with a lesser in attendance. But it is to the east that we look, the eastern sky where the rim of light will grow, the distant lands where, long ago already, something wonderful happened. More wonderful still: it happens again and again, coming to assuage our darkness at the year’s turning, bringing light to the hidden places of our hearts, promising us that we have not been forgotten.
It is dark now, but it will be light. The child will bring it. Come, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A letter to the Bishops

The following letter speaks for itself. I am proud of the signatories, and proud to add my name by posting it here.

Dear Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church,

We read with dismay the Guidance for Clergy and Lay Readers in the light of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014.

We appreciate that we are bound by the law, and that until our canons are changed, we cannot legally perform same-sex marriages. However, we are disappointed by both the timing and the tone of the document. We have been urged by you to enter into ‘cascade conversations’ in a spirit of open and sensitive listening with people of all views on this matter. This document only makes this process much harder for us, even impossible for some. Far from acknowledging the reality of differing experience and views in the church, it gives the impression of a definitive answer to the question we have yet to discuss or debate. The document ought to make it clear that the restrictions it describes may be temporary, if the church decides to change its canons. Because of the confusion created by this document, we now believe that such canonical change should be decided in Synod as soon as possible.

But we were especially dismayed by the section of the document which refers to clergy, lay readers, and ordinands, should they be in a same-sex relationship and wish to be married. In particular, we find the warnings to ordinands, both currently training and those who might be training in the future, to be unrepresentative of the generous and communal characteristics of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Even though our church has not yet agreed to solemnise same-sex marriages, they will nevertheless become a civil institution which we will recognise like everyone else under the law. It is our firm belief therefore that any prohibition on obtaining a civil marriage is outwith the moral and canonical authority of a bishop.

We acknowledge that this process is one which creates anxiety for all church leaders, and bishops in particular. We empathise with the difficult situation that you as bishops are in, and reaffirm our desire to support you in your leadership of our church, and as fellow members of it.

Nevertheless, some of us are now uncomfortable about solemnising marriages at all until such time as all can be treated equally, and all of us will continue to feel morally compromised in our ministries, and wish to make clear our continuing commitment to affirm and support all people in our church, and to recognise and rejoice in all marriages, of whatever sexual orientation, as true signs of the love of God in Christ.

Yours sincerely,
Revd Carrie Applegath,
Revd Philip Blackledge,
Revd Maurice Houston,
Revd Canon John McLuckie,
Revd Canon Ian Paton,
Revd Kate Reynolds,
Revd Martin Robson,
Revd Malcolm Aldcroft,
Dr Darlene Bird (lay reader),
Revd Jim Benton-Evans,
Revd Cedric L. Blakey,
Revd Andrew Bowyer,
Revd Canon Bill Brockie,
Revd Tony Bryer,
Revd Steve Butler,
Revd Christine Barclay,
Revd Lynsay M Downes,
Revd Markus Dünzkofer,
Revd Canon Anne Dyer,
Revd Janet Dyer,
Revd Jennifer Edie,
Revd John L Evans,
Revd Samantha Ferguson,
The Revd Canon Zachary Fleetwood,
Kennedy Fraser,
Revd Kirstin Freeman,
Revd Frances Forshaw,
Revd Ruth Green,
Revd Bob Gould,
Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth,
Revd Ruth Innes,
Revd Ken Webb,
Rev’d Canon Mel Langille,
Revd Kenny Macaulay,
Revd Simon Mackenzie,
Revd Duncan MacLaren,
Very Revd Nikki McNelly,
Very Revd Jim Mein,
Revd Nicola Moll,
Revd Bryan Owen,
Revd Canon Clifford Piper,
Revd Donald Reid,
Revd Colin Reed,
Revd Canon John Richardson,
Revd Malcolm Richardson,
The Revd Gareth J M Saunders,
Very Revd Alison J Simpson,
Very Revd Andrew Swift,
Kate Sainsbury (lay reader),
Patsy Thomson (lay reader),
Prof Revd Annalu Waller

Long ago, in a universe far away ...

I have been thinking I ought to write to the College of Bishops about that pronouncement that is now all over yesterday's Herald, quite apart from anywhere else, but my exhibitionist side actually prefers to ruminate here, where anyone can see it and no-one can decide to interpret it in their own way in private. Strangely, it was learning of the death of Bishop Michael Hare-Duke that stirred up the memories that, it seems to me, make this latest situation so absurd.

Long long ago, when I was very young and had only been a member of the SEC for 5 years, I was chosen to be one of the two lay representatives from Argyll and The Isles to sit on the Provincial Synod. This relatively small body met annually in Perth, and it was with some trepidation that I travelled there that first year (it was 1978, the day Pope John Paul 2 was elected) to find that I was the youngest person in the Synod and hadn't a clue what was expected of me.  I remember spending many hours debating the language of the New Liturgy - what is now the 1982 Liturgy and itself regarded as positively old hat. As the years passed - during which the Provincial Synod abolished itself and the RCC and I vanished from the wider church and concentrated on my day job - I became aware of what was going on and who was who in the hierarchy - and one of the most interesting of the bishops was Bishop Michael, the poet and thinker who did so much to shape the 1982 Liturgy.

But to my point. One of the first issues I recall being involved in voting about was The Remarriage in Church of Divorced Persons. This gave rise to much heated discussion and seemed a Very Important Matter Indeed. And then there were women. In the run-up to this particular Synod my husband answered a phone-call (I was out). The conversation ran thus:
"May I speak to Christine, please?"
"I'm sorry, she's out. Who's calling?"
"It's George."
(Suspiciously) "George who?"
(Plaintive)"George the bishop."
"Oh. Hello. She's not here."
"Give her a message, will you? For God's sake tell her not to vote for women priests."
"Oh. Right. I'll tell her."

And he did. At the Synod the next week, a lovely older woman (maybe the age I am now) told me I was the kind of woman who ought to be ordained. I didn't know whether to be gratified or horrified. Her son became one of our bishops, incidentally, but he is no longer with us.

It should be painfully obvious why I'm telling these anecdotes. I'm now older than any of the current diocesan bishops, and have a far longer memory than to be able to let their current burst of ill-placed authoritarianism pass without asking them what in all seriousness they think they're at. If it weren't so serious, so damaging to people I care about and the institution I still, after all the years and all the setbacks, care about also, I'd laugh. I'd laugh the way I do when I hear small children playing - "Let's make it that you're the mummy and I'm the daddy"... "Let's make it sound as if we can actually tell people what to do/think/believe."

I'm sorry. We're adult Christians. We've learned about justice, compassion, equality, fairness - not to mention common sense. And long ago, Bishop Michael Hare-Duke exemplified these qualities to a very young, very inexperienced new Christian. The last time I met him was some 7 years ago - at the first Provincial conversation about the status and experiences of gay Christians. We were both much older - but he at least hadn't changed.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A letter to Jim Murphy MP

The following open letter from me to Jim Murphy, newly-elected leader of The Labour Party in Scotland, appeared in today's Sunday Herald:

Dear Mr Murphy

As someone who successfully taught English in the state sector for my entire career, both in Glasgow and in Dunoon, and whose sons attended the local comprehensive,  I think I can claim to have a pretty good idea about teaching and learning in secondary schools in Scotland. Right from the early days when a young Johann Lamont sat in the front row of my classroom to the day I retired, I was aware of the excellent work being done by my colleagues, often under desperately trying situations. 

These situations were brought about, not by their lack of ability, but by the attitude towards education of too many of their pupils - an attitude shaped and reinforced by that of their parents, who were either hostile to teachers or uninterested as long as they could get on with their own lives. The behaviour of these pupils frequently disrupted the learning of the more interested with the inevitable effect on the quality of the experience and the final outcomes.

How do you think it makes teachers like me feel to read that you are eager to ensure that “state school pupils in deprived areas should have access to teachers in the independent sector”? (Sunday Herald, 07/12/14) We have always known that there are good and poor teachers in private schools, just as there are in every school in the land. In fact, we have also long been aware that a poor teacher is less likely to have his weaknesses exposed in an independent school, where parental pressure tends to ensure an ethos of industry. 

Before you launch your attack on the private sector, think carefully about the effect your ill-considered remarks have on the thousands of hard-working teachers in the state sector, and consider more carefully the target of your plans. Your words are more likely to have the effect of further diminishing the enthusiasm for the importance of school of any parents who listen to you.

I was a member of the Labour party for many years, but this revival of class envy at the expense of my contribution to society is just one of the factors that will ensure I will never be a member again.


Christine McIntosh

Saturday, December 13, 2014

On rage, and prophetic leadership

I've not been blogging for a bit, and it'd be good to be able to post another Advent piece, a poem perhaps or something I wrote previously that could do with an airing, but my Advent attempts at calm meditation have been disturbed by two things. One is ok, actually - I've been working on a sermon for Advent 3, all John the Baptist and making straight the way of the Lord, and though the results are perhaps more prophetic in tone than is entirely seemly in a lay preacher, I feel the contemplation that produced said results were a suitable occupation. The other, however, is not at all ok. It all began with reading a blog post which took me to a statement by the bishops of the only church I've ever actually belonged to.  And this statement, about what The Church had to say about the things gay people may and may not do within its rapidly diminishing sphere of influence, disturbed me to such an extent that I've thought of little else all week.

And this morning the same blogger posted this very measured and gracious piece,  and I felt disturbed all over again. Because I'm not feeling at all measured and gracious, and I have made no promises about maintaining peace and unity and besides I'm feeling restless and rebellious. And in writing this, I hope to do two things.

The first is to apologise to anyone, gay or straight, within the church or - more likely - outside it and looking on incredulously, and to tell them not to write off all Christians, all Episcopalians, as being firmly stuck in the ignorant past and willing to sacrifice the wonderful gift of life in all its fullness on the altar of a variety of respectability and prejudice that was common in the 1950s. Some of us are raging because the church we love has turned its back on people we love and value - people who also love the church and want to play a full and joyful part in it.

And the raging brings me to the second thing. Rage in debate is seldom helpful, but sometimes it leads one to a vision of what leadership is all about. John the Baptist certainly didn't mince his words, and Jesus had a less than temperate way with those who ground down the poor, the outsider - the ones who didn't conform. We've had prophetic leadership in the SEC in the past, and we've seen that it's never easy for such leaders. But I long for such leadership. Where is the inspiration, the vision that would allow our church to shine as an example to 21st century society?

Finally, I realise I have a big problem with the way things are being done just now. If those in authority tell me privately that they're on the same wavelength as I am but they have to keep everyone on board, I'm not sure this is a lifeboat I want to continue in. If the captain and some very capable sailors tell you that the closest land is due east, and some of the more timid passengers want to go on sailing to America even though it's five times further because that's where they were originally going before the liner sank, which way would you want to go?

People, look east, I say. People, look east.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Taking Advent seriously


Rend the heavens, come quickly down –
Can we mean it? In the dark
to ask the God to come like this
would have us tremble at the presence
sought that Sunday as we sang.
Behold, thou wast angry and we sinned – 
dear God, we try, we know our sin, 
we see too clearly where we are.
The veiled women weep, the bomb
explodes on distant soil:
we worry lest our own are there,
care less about the ruined lives
among the debris of our wars.
All our deeds are like a polluted garment -
hung about us in the cold
as if we fear our nakedness,
would do anything to hide.
The child dies at the hands of those
whose task is care and love
while we, appalled, avert our eyes
from innocence betrayed.
We all fade like a leaf
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away –
light little things in the face of creation
and yet, and yet …
Lord, we continue. You have never
swept us from the face of earth.
We love and beget and children
lovely children, innocent and clean
come naked into the world
in your eternal promise of what can be.
Your Son will come, again, again
and we have hope, another chance
to use your world in precious ways
to hold your people to your face.
As tiny fingers clasp round ours
we reach into the dark and feel
the strength of love enfolding us.
The heavens are rent as if a cloud
were parted at the end of rain
and light will come too bright to tell – 
we sing again. Come, Lord, and soon.


I wrote this some time ago at this point in the year. Sadly, the world that I linked to the words of the Advent Prose has, if anything, become a sadder place - and one very much in need of the promises of hope.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When the lights come on at four ...

Prevented from my customary roaming by a vile cough and an unaccustomed sense of responsibility, I find myself thinking about what happens as I get older. For let's face it, older I am - and it's over nine years since I retired from teaching and I frequently wonder at the person that did all that teaching and extra-curricular work as well as the things I still like to do.

It's not that I'm particularly decrepit, in the normal way of things, no matter how lousy I may feel right now. I can still hike in the mountains all day and survive to enjoy a bibulous meal in the evening - for that's what we do on these walking holidays we've become fond of. I can still enjoy singing in the various ensembles I'm involved in, and though I'm well aware of the need to keep my voice in good working order by proper production and by careful practice, in many ways I sing better than I ever did. My sight-reading hasn't faltered, either of music or of the written word (when I haven't prepared a reading in church, f'rinstance.) So what has changed?

The energy levels, that's sure. Not necessarily the energy that sustains the long hikes, but the energy that allows you to cope with keeping several balls in the air at once - or even to contemplate so doing.   And it's not as if I sit fretting about the things left undone - I often find myself saying ( a Psalmist moment coming on) Tush! I'll do it tomorrow ... Take today. I know I have the excuse of a bug, but I seem to have spent the afternoon until now dozing and doing two Sudokus on paper (I usually do them online. There's more scope for changing your mind). It was partly the wonder at this incredible waste of time that led to this post. But I know that the same person who did this was perfectly capable of letting, say, a free period in school slide past in trivia - chatting to a colleague, perhaps, or pottering on a page of the school magazine which the pupil editors could perfectly well have done without me. So in a way, this retired malarkey simply allows me to be the person I always was. Only thing is, I'm more aware now that the reckoning will come, not in the form of a line manager wondering when my marking is going to be done but in the shape of ... well, death, not to put too fine a point on it.

However, I've discovered that it's a mistake to try to line up meaningful activities to tick off as part of these apparently declining years. The mental energy just isn't there. Mental energy, note - not physical. That's less abundant too, of course, though normally, I'd have decent exercise in a day - usually a walk that most people would think long and strenuous. This takes hours out of my life. Is it time wasted? I take photos and share them online, enjoying the photos from friends and family and total strangers that are there when I do so. Time wasted? I spent an age making a card for a grandson with a photo of him in action, but I suspect society would approve of that bit. And they might think it was all right to get round to scanning some extraordinary photos I found in a drawer, of my grandparents at the beginning of last century. (I must do that ...)

But here's a thing. Is it significant that I'm choosing to write this as darkness falls? Ever since I was young, I've known this was a time of day for feeling melancholy in - not necessarily the hour, but the fading of light and the end of the day's possibilities. It comes second only to the grim hour before dawn when you waken and consider Last Things - take a look at Philip Larkin's Aubade for an example of this. There is no denying the fact that it's better to be busy or preoccupied than to moon over the horrors of ageing, though clearly Larkin in this poem feared death more. (He was pretty miserable about ageing as well - read The Old Fools.)

When I was a teenager, stressed under the burdens of homework and my hockey-bag, I used to sit on the bus and look with a degree of envy at some buddy who might have been the age I am now but who would have been dressed in a way I still consider elderly. I would be thinking of all the worries she didn't have - presumably she had a husband, a house, no homework, no exams, no monthly agonies from an erratic menstrual cycle, no tendency to have her gut heave the moment a plateful of food was placed in front of her.

I think I'm not going to comment on that. It's too obvious where the flaws lie. But talking about these moments on the 10 bus to Broomhill has brought these journeys home amazingly close. Life, as I've commented before, is at once timeless and brief, and I keep coming face to face with someone I used to be. I've always been aware of this, I think - these poems I've been referring to were a regular feature in my teaching, and these teenaged pupils loved studying them despite - or maybe because of - the gloom. But ahead of us all - who knows what lies there?

A question to end, brought on by the season of remembrance: Is it any easier to die in a sudden burst of shellfire than slowly, in bed? Among companions who may or may not survive, or alone? I suspect you're always alone inside your head at the end - but wonder.

Ah -  Give me your arm, old Toad; help me down Cemetery Road...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

November - a poem for the season of remembrance


The month of remembering -
the lines of men in the stubble fields
the hideous scramble over a muddy
parapet, the cringing death in the
eye’s blink - this month recalls
wars past and wars still trailing
death and mutilation in their wake.
But not just that.
This month of remembering 
lines up before our wavering prayers
the souls of Saints, the souls
of our beloved dead, guttering
like candles in the fitful 
illumination of our faith.
The tears come, yes - 
but do we weep for them, or do we
shrink at the sudden blinding glimpse
of our too frail mortality?
We who live trudge on to where
our companion dead are waiting
among the red flowers at the years’ end
in that land to which we go.

©C.M.M. 11/14

This owes its conclusion to a fraction of an idea from R.S.Thomas, whose words tend to haunt my subconscious and of whom I will always be in awe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Normandy Landing

From heroic effort to the pathos
of the broken dead, a child’s toy
abandoned in the road, is only
a single step into randomness.
Why this one, who leapt so fearless
in the surf, why was he
destroyed and swallowed in the 
red tide, he and not the next
who followed and prevailed?
These men at once machine and 
vulnerable flesh cut off
from life and love and being young
now lie in rows too numberless for thought -
no randomness allowed in this, the 
garden of the lost. No laughter now, 
no language to describe
the lives that made them friend or foe, 
but the differentiated dead
are still beneath the plaque or cross
of those who held and those who came
and we now walk these quiet parks
and think upon the unlived years.
I am the child you never had, 
my son, and weep a mother’s tears.

© C.M.M

I wrote this in the garden of the Chatêau de Molay after our visit to Omaha Beach. The hideous futility of training, travelling halfway across the world from some deep Western state of America to die the moment the landing craft dropped its ramp - all that made a deep impression, as did the serried ranks of graves on the cliffs above the shore.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Normandy Fahrt: A smug French moment at Pegasus Bridge

I've fallen lamentably behind with my posts on the Normandy trip last month. Blame my life. It  took over the moment I was home. But there are one or two things still to be shared, and then there's a poem, of which more anon. The photo on the left is of Pegasus Bridge, which film buffs should remember from The Longest Day - Sorry I'm late, old chap ... Think nothing of it, old chap - something like that anyway. This is the view across the bridge to the cafe and the building adjoining it, both as they were in the film, and, more importantly, in 1944. The cafe is run by a woman who was a small child at the time, whose parents owned the same cafe. Sadly, Mr B and I didn't realise this till later - but out of our choice to visit the other cafe, facing it across the road, came a most enjoyable moment of sheer ... smugness. Incidentally, the bridge is not the original one; it now stands in the grounds of the museum looking just like this one only - I think - slightly narrower.

But to our morning coffee moment. Hastening across the bridge from the museum as if the entire German army was on our heels, we met our Glorious Leader. We saw, behind him, several of our compadres sitting at a table outside the cafe in the photo. I wouldn't come in here if you're looking for coffee, he announced. The woman's as cheerful as Basil Fawlty. Such was my need of coffee I loitered no longer, but headed into the other establishment, empty except for a taciturn man in an orange t-shirt. A fag - surely a Gauloise? - dangled artistically from a corner of his lower lip. I smiled beguilingly.  Bonjour, Monsieur...Is it possible - in faultless French, I may add - to have coffee? And, perhaps, un petit quelque chose a emporter - un sandwich, peut-être?

Downturned mouth, shrug ... peut-être, Madame. Je vais demander. I kept smiling, and I kept speaking French. The coffee arrived, and we sat in the sun and watched a boat going under Pegasus Bridge and noticed how about 20 of our friends were stranded on the far side by this operation. Gauloise reappeared. Jambon et beurre? ... Parfait, monsieur. Merci. And as our friends straggled in, also searching for coffee and something to eat later, our half-baguettes appeared, stuffed with the most luscious ham, rich with butter, neatly parcelled in brown paper bags with a paper napkin round them. I bought some risqué postcards, explaining that they were for the loo wall of my Norman daughter-in-law. He gave me a deal on half a dozen, explaining that actually he didn't know the price of these ones. We parted with great bonhomie, the best of friends. Not a word of English had been spoken. Hence the smugness. The sandwiches, incidentally, were as good as they looked, and even the golden crusts weren't a challenge to my fragile teeth.

It must be hard living in this kind of tourist mecca. Ok, the business is considerably brisker than in other French backwaters, but there's a niggle in my mind about this constant memorial activity, in a countryside that was ravaged by war and is now picked over by the descendants of those who ravaged it (for there were German tourists too, in several of the sites we visited. Naturally.) The Basil Fawlty woman has become a tourist attraction in her own right - but how hard to keep pleasant when you're setting for lunch and a gaggle of coffee-and-sandwich types appears just before l'heure de dejeuner.

Our day continued with a visit to Merville Battery (where we had the experience of being in a gun turret during the invasion) and ended in Caen, where some of us had an adventure with a sparrow hawk, a terrified pigeon (in our bedroom, natch), and another pigeon devoured before our eyes in the garden of the Kyriad Hotel. We took our tea nonetheless, an upturned rubbish bin serving as a coffee table. We were seasoned campaigners, and were not about to let a bit of random slaughter get between us and our refreshment.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Normandy Fahrt Day 3: Omaha Beach

We spent our third day in France reliving the American experience on Omaha Beach. I felt I knew most of what happened there from endless re-runs of The Longest Day (shot on location: we saw photos of local involvement in the filming) and the more recent Saving Private Ryan, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of the cemetery that takes up the whole area on the cliffs where the German defences were sited above the main beach. There is something about the starkness of the white crosses rising straight out of the cropped grass, crosses that had name, rank and company as well as home state and date of death, that depersonalised the loss for me - no emblems, no age given for the dead, no flowerbeds around the graves. Instead, I was forcibly aware of the anonymity of these ranks - look at the lines, which flow straight in every direction - and the dedication that ensures that every single grave has this cropped grass round the foot of the cross (or Star of David: you can see one to the right of centre in the photo). There were clumps of heather round the pine trees grouped occasionally around the site, a multi-faith chapel that was too over-run by visitors to give me any sense of anything, and a Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west over the headstones - over 9,000 graves,  among which are the stones of 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action.

But even more than among the graves, it was down on the beach that I felt the hopelessness of the  task faced by these young men from halfway across the world as the ramps of their landing craft fell forward and they saw what they had to climb, under withering fire, if the invasion was to succeed.
 The photo on the left shows Mr B and friend on the sand where so many died just as they left the sea, and beyond them, the trees standing distinct on the skyline show where the guns overlooked the whole area, while other fortifications were, I think, among the dunes where the vegetation starts. The photo below shows the same section of beach from what is now the viewpoint; it would have been a  viewpoint with a rather different purpose in 1944. The area to be covered is now traversed by a neat path that you can see disappearing in the middle of this photo, but even with its steps and easy gradient it took us a
good 15 minutes to climb back up. The area in between is now covered in shrubs that I imagine have been planted to deter wandering in this site, which is entirely given over as a memorial.

After a break for lunch had turned into a truly French affair (because some of us went looking for a crêperie and ordered galettes complètes and while this is fast food for one it isn't for 14), we visited another sobering site above the Pointe du Hoc, where the American Rangers had to climb the cliffs to reach the huge guns which actually for the most part faced inland because the Germans didn't think anyone would make that climb. The whole area was pitted with the holes from the shellfire from the Allied ships, and we were able to go inside the concrete gun emplacements and see the view made famous by a scene in The Longest Day when a German officer first saw the invasion on the horizon.  We went from there to another iconic site, where an American paratrooper famously caught on the roof of the church in Ste Mere Eglise and hung there for hours pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. A museum stands on the site where on the fateful night a house was on fire, and - somewhat bizarrely - we could see from the town square the torn parachute and (model) paratrooper still hanging from the church roof.

That evening, like the previous one, was spent in raucous entertainment. The young staff of the Chateau flocked, like little moths, to the door of the room where this mob of ancients acted Allo Allo in execrable French accents and sang wartime favourites and French songs at the top of their still-unbelievably-loud voices to the accompaniment of a small keyboard pounded to great effect by Mr B.

As I've said on previous occasions, you really had to be there ...


Friday, September 26, 2014

Radio 4 discusses Maths - a poem of bewilderment

Radio 4 discusses Maths

There’s a magic number
called e, that has the 
power to solve the world’s
problems, to be practical in ways
we never dreamed, and I
think of pi and other
imponderables, and I feel my brain
reeling, eyes fluttering, under
the onslaught. It was ever
thus, x years ago, when I sat, 
uniformed but uninformed
at a wooden desk scarred quite
fascinatingly by the past.
Are there any numbers out there
that cannot be written as a 
fraction? That’s it. I break, 
fractured by fractions
and irrational numbers.

© C.M.M. 09/14

I wrote the above yesterday, on the proverbial back of an envelope, while listening to Radio 4's Melvyn Bragg discussion on the radio. I stopped eating my toast while a horribly familiar sensation from my distant schooldays crept over me. My brain had gone into free fall  and my tenuous grasp on the discussion had snapped. However, I was happy that normal activity was still intact: the poem just flowed out and I've only changed one line since. 

I am grateful to my friend Frank for sending me the mathematical statement that provides me with an illustration when all else would have been as meaningless as ... e.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Referendum Question - a poem for the aftermath

Referendum Question

Would there have been tears

when the old Union died,
a bitter mourning for the loss
of joyous hope denied?
Or is this death forever theirs
who dare to look beyond the past?
The autumn sun is lower now,
the wind blows cool, the petals drop; 
the hills lie purple as the pheasants’ cry
foretells their death before the guns,
and far from here contending claims
engulf the promises held out
to save a tryst whose love was spent.
The question asks the aftermath:
would there, would there have been tears?

© C.M.M 09/14

Friday, September 19, 2014

A post-Referendum letter to the 45%

I'm writing this at the end of the kind of grey day I yesterday remembered from the '80s. It's hard for me to feel the optimism expressed by some communicators, and as I hear the news of Alex Salmond's stepping down from his leadership post I feel a deepening of the gloom even as I recognise that in his position I would do exactly the same.

But I'm writing now to the 45% who voted for a different Scotland. A little digging shows that what I sensed throughout the campaign was true: most of you are much younger than I am. So I'd like first to apologise for my generation, for our failure of nerve and of the imagination; for our fears about our pensions and our East Enders; for our unwillingness to listen and to read enough.

And then I'd like to charge you, all you of the 45% who are between the ages of 25 and 55, not to grow to be like the 73% of NO voters who are in my age group. Don't ever settle down inside your head, don't ever mentally don a white cardigan or a sensible skirt or a pair of tartan carpet slippers. Don't ever think that all life holds is a straitened existence in which you hold onto the past and condemn future generations to what they now find acceptable. Never allow yourselves to think that because you're no longer in daily, paid employment all you are fit for is to go for your morning paper or speak increasingly in pious platitudes and meaningless, safe clichés. If you have a mind now, you will - death or Alzheimer's permitting - have a life then. You will have more time to inform yourself about the world than you ever enjoyed when you were running after kids or working in full-time employment. You are currently, I imagine, au fait with Facebook and other social media. By the time you are my age there will be other forms of engagement available - learn to use them. 

So once more, I say I'm sorry. Sorry that my co-aevals lacked your vision and paid no attention to what you wanted. Sorry that we are the selfish and blinkered generation we turned out to be. Sorry that we were fearful, sorry that we were ignorant, sorry that we claim proudly to have no truck with social media, sorry that we didn't engage with you. 

We are not all like that, and I am one of the 27% of over-65s who voted YES. I'm still up for a fight, and I can see one looming as the Westminster machine starts coming apart. But it will now be in your lifetimes, not mine, that we will see off the idea that it is better to spend on our children what we currently spend on nuclear weapons, better to shape our own destiny than be allowed scraps from the Westminster table. 

Don't lose heart. Don't shut down the vision. And don't ever grow old inside your heads.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I voted YES because ...

By the time I have finished writing this post, the polls will have closed. In fact, I shall shortly stop writing so that I can watch the 10 o'clock news, not because I expect to learn anything new about the Referendum Poll just closing all over Scotland, but because I feel I'm living through a moment in history that I can't bear to miss.

Today I voted YES. Actually, I voted ... what? three weeks ago? Because I had a postal vote, left over from a previous election which clashed with a holiday. I felt excited when I posted it, and I felt excited today, all over again. Not that my local polling station gave much sign of its huge importance in  today's events - it's a dreary place, in a rather dull street, and there is little on the pavement outside to lift the heart.

Today I voted YES. And in that vote, and in my hopes, are all the memories. Memories of the first time I began to feel aware of the effect on my life of the policies that I had always imagined affected ... other people. I shall never forget the sudden pang of realisation that I had brought my young firstborn baby to live next to a foreign nuclear submarine base: the US Navy's Site One. When that first child was joined by a second, I was on the road to activism. Throughout the miserable '80s I demonstrated, made speeches, appeared on radio and television and went to court as an expert witness in several trials of Greenham Women arrested when they came to join us in demonstrating against the Holy Loch base. I picketed polling stations; I leafleted countless households. Always the word came back: What can we do?

I remember more. I remember hearing a British Naval officer addressing a meeting in Ardentinny Hall, telling us that in the event of an accidental explosion at the Coulport base across the loch, Glenfinart Bay would somehow, miraculously avoid the blast as there would be a ... dent, a distortion of the blast circle. I remember the day Thatcher was re-elected, and the despair I felt; I remember drinking champagne in the sun that day in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected, and I remember the fading of that hope as his government ploughed on, betraying all that we had hoped for. I remember marching with thousands through a frosty Glasgow, protesting against the Iraq war. It happened anyway.

I remember too that day I stood on the Royal Mile watching the strange assortment of people that told us Scotland had its own parliament again - the Queen, Donald Dewar, Sean Connery. The Red Arrows thundered overhead. Something was changing. And of course I remember - how could we forget? - the day we learned that something else had happened against all expectation, that the SNP had won an overwhelming majority and that we were bound to have a referendum.

All this streams behind us tonight. Whatever the result of this closely-contested poll, we will never be the same. We have engaged with the issues in an unprecedented fashion and we have grown in confidence as a nation. I hope personally that the fearful have not prevailed this night, and that our new hope and new alignments will carry us forward from tomorrow morning. But even if the NO vote wins, we cannot go back to the old certainties, the old obedience.

And as I finish, I can be proud that the children I so feared for in their infancy have grown into the men they are - one with a vote today, the other disqualified by living elsewhere. My vote in this Referendum began with them, and the future is theirs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Normandy Fahrt Day 2: Gott hat das letzte wort

Our first full day begins early. (We soon discover that this will be the norm throughout - brisk breakfasts and trotting toilettes). It is more or less dark when we get up, with that chilly, mist-laden dawn that characterises the early morning in France where mornings are earlier than they are in Scotland because they're not really far enough east to justify being an hour ahead. But I digress. We drive through misty fields with picturesque rolls of whatever crop it is they grow in these parts and find ourselves on the headland above the small town of Arromanches. This is where most of the British troops came ashore on D-Day, and where the Mulberry Harbour was built to allow equipment and supplies to be brought ashore. Several bits of the harbour remain visible in the sea as well as abandoned on the beach (above).

The visit takes on what will become a familiar pattern: an overview, a museum visit, extended free time to explore and ponder. I add to this the pressing need for coffee and insist that a small cafe across the road from the museum should be our first stop. There is something wonderfully sinful about lunching on an espresso, a bottle of water and a crêpe au caramel salé ...

Four of us, feeling relatively lithe and fit, set off through the town towards the headland. We pass several of our fellow-Fahrters eating substantially in various hostelries, but do not yield. We clamber on a concrete gun emplacement, we walk along a cliff path that is forbidden because of erosion. No-one falls off, and we return to the town for a small pichet of rosé before the coach drive to our next visit, noting as we go that several objects along the shop fronts are cosily wrapped in squares of ... knitting. I know. I don't get it either.

The remainder of the afternoon is spent visiting the German war graveyard at La Cambe. This site was developed between 1958 and 1961, with a great deal of work being done by an international youth camp in 1959. Now more than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here. I found it a sombre place; the graves are marked by flat dark basalt lava plaques about the size of an open book, and watched over by groups of low crosses in dark stone. We are so accustomed to seeing movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, where the German soldiers are anonymous figures to be killed or captured by the invading Allies; it is all too easy to forget the humanity of individual boys and men who fought in their thousands and died far from home. Albert Schweitzer said "the soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace", and on the plinth below the heavy cross at the centre of the cemetery there is an inscription which ends with the words: Gott hat das letzte wort. This was one of the places where I felt an overwhelming need to be on my own, and I wandered far, looking at the stones where two or even three names were recorded together. Several were dedicated simply to Ein Deutscher Soldat.

The day ended not in pious reflection but in raucous singing of songs associated with the period of WW2. Several years ago, when we paid a similar visit to the battlefields of the Somme, I thought I would find this jarring, but realised that we were no different from the soldiers who would celebrate the fact that they were still alive by being ... themselves. The Château rang with the noise until well on in the evening and I was glad we were sleeping on the top floor. As I went to bed I could hear an owl among the trees outside and then it was silent. Another early start awaited us ...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Normandy Fahrt: Day 1

I've been away. And although I've been back for several days now, my days in Normandy are still very much with me - so much so that I feel a diarist's approach might be better than trying to encompass everything in one post. So here we are with Day1: the journey...

By the time the 2014 Fahrt (German for 'journey', natch, but capable of other interpretation) arrives on the Continent, it has already been on the road for 24 hours. (Collective noun in use, as well as 'road' standing also for 'sea'). Around 40 people have been gathered into a coach from Linlithgow lay-byes, Asda carparks and the like and driven to Hull - a city which, as Philip Larkin apparently observed, people only visit if they have business there. Our business was the P&O ferry to Zeebrugge, on which we had booked basic cabins (no porthole, bunk beds). Some of us chickened out of this and paid for upgrades ... The food and service were excellent; most of us have slept. I have not. I blame the decaff. I think it wasn't.

But onward. Onward south and west, into France and on to the Chateau du Molay, where we are staying in the accommodation usually used by school trips. We have visited our first war graves, in the War Graves Commission cemetery in Bayeux (above). There we have laid a wreath in memory of a Linlithgow soldier buried there, and have been moved by the sight of so many graves and the sound of the Last Post echoing through the birdsong of early evening. (Mr B had his iPod and Bose dock with him). I am forcibly struck by the dates of birth on so many of the stones - so many of these soldiers had been born in the years when my parents were born and I realise that we represent the children they never had.

We soon find, Mr B and I, that although we have to consign our luggage to the lift and will henceforth be scampering up 3 flights of stairs to reach our room, which is in the roof and has a Velux window, we are blessed with two single beds (some rooms have multiple bunks) and a kettle. I even seem to have a feather pillow. My cup is already full before I eat; the rest of me is soon full of an excellent dinner. The noise level in the dining room is startling. Mr B and I slip out as the Fahrters head for the bar. Outside, the moon is shining and it is silent apart from the residual hum in our ears. The chateau looks romantic and peaceful. It is going to be a good Fahrt.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading

What have I been reading recently? Nice of you to ask - I have been reading more than I might, because it's been the kind of weather that allows you to read outside, and I'm an outdoorsy sort who can't bear to sit in if the sun's shining or even if it's not and ... and ... Enough. Right now I've started on Lucretia Grindle's The Lost Daughter  and I'm enjoying it hugely, in the way you  do when you've read several of an author's books and settle comfortably into the environment - in this case Florence - and the characters (Italian cops) you've met before. I continue to be slightly irritated by the writer's tick of consigning adjectival clauses to a separate sentence more than once (once is fine, but it's too distinctive a trait to use more often), but she writes a good tale and the setting is terrific.

I'll not go on about that, however, because I'm just settling in - though I may return for a final thought. Before embarking on the Grindle I was reading the deeply unsettling The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin. Set in Canada and Cambodia, this is a story of the Killing Fields, so I'm now considerably more clued up on Pol Pot and the horrors of that era than I was in the 70s, when I was too preoccupied with bringing up children. As I shall be visiting Cambodia and Vietnam next year, it seemed a good way for a fiction fiend to pick up some history, and a pretty ghastly history it is. Echlin writes in an elegiac way that incorporates Cambodian words into her dialogue and reflects the music that brings the lovers of her story together, but under the poetry of her language is an undercurrent of tension that meant I sometimes had to stop reading (at bedtime, usually) before I was ready to.

I read another thought-provoking book in Frankie and Stankie, by Barbara Trapido. This is a delightfully-narrated account of growing up in the South Africa that existed while I was a child, the South Africa of growing apartheid seen through the eyes of the child of white liberals who nevertheless mingled with the rest of white society - though they took a dim view of the Afrikaaners, whom they saw as boorish country clods. The child-like clarity of the prose means that events happen without necessarily being interpreted; with our hindsight we are able to see how things gathered their own ghastly momentum and changed a world even as its inhabitants watched. I'm glad to have read it.

And then there was the appropriately seasonal Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell. This is the story of a family, beautifully and lovingly told, with fascinating flashbacks gradually explaining what is happening and making it possible for the family to continue. I especially enjoyed the seemingly effortless mastery of the writer, the firm grasp of tense, the fine strokes of characterisation. Set in the heatwave of July 1976 - a heatwave in London which was not, I can tell you with all the authority of a diarist, a heatwave in Dunoon - the writer keeps the heat there, oppressively present without being over-described, so that you are constantly aware of the difficulties of coping rationally with any crisis. I saved this one up for the appropriate season, and it went down a treat.

And now, chums, I'm away back to Florence. I'm not after all going to say any more till I'm finished. The sun is shining in the garden and I want to read ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A unique privilege

On the kind of day when I look out at the rain and mist and breathe a prayer of thankfulness that I have no visitors staying, no children hoping for a visit to the beach or an adventure in the forest, I find myself reflecting - for solace, as it were - on what it is that makes being a grandparent so special. Remember, I never thought of myself as the maternal type - until my first son was born. Then I was maternal, but actually only towards him, and towards the second son who followed four years later. I still found other people's children attractive only insofar as they met my criteria, not simply because they were children, and I taught adolescents in the assumption that they were doing what the name suggests - growing older, becoming people. And I liked people.

So when my sons were men and became husbands and announced that they were to be fathers, I was not at all sure how that would feel. Maybe mothers are always like that; it's not something I've discussed. And then the babies were born and my world was turned upside down for the second time in my life. The connection to these tiny infants was unbelievable in its impact, maternal instinct or no. What today's reflection consolidated was that for almost seven years now I've enjoyed the immense privilege of a chance to experience the uncritical acceptance and love from children who seem to know, whether we meet frequently or seldom, that there is a bond that can be trusted and a love that will never be withheld. I regard it as a unique privilege, even though it is shared by other grandparents, because it is unique in any one life - unique and undreamed-of.

When we are parents, we are so busy being parents that we tend not to notice the passage of time other than in landmarks like walking, talking and teeth. Our own lives are so full with the minutiae of care that there is little time to reflect - and then the time has passed, the children are drifting out of our orbit, sharing their lives with increasing numbers of strangers, becoming people just as we did before them. There is a sense of a faint regret, perhaps, but we are caught up in the amazement that these new people came from us, and the anxiety or exhilaration that surrounds their achievements. Finally, they leave - and I think sons do this more conclusively than daughters - and the cycle begins again.

The grandchildren, that golden second chance to be with children and love them and have them smother you in sticky kisses and tell you they are going to miss you when they say goodbye, come and bring with them that added bonus of perspective. A grandparent knows all too well how swiftly that chariot careers along on its breathless wings; this grandparent has learned that every moment - even the tired, grumpy moment - has to be cherished and savoured like a mouthful of fine wine, like the perfect cadence hanging in the silence that applause will soon break.

And that is why I will walk away from other demands if my family, my two-generational family, asks me to; that is why I defer final commitment to other tasks; that is why I add caveats to most of the arrangements I make these days. For it is a fact that to be a grandmother who can tell interesting stories and supply adventures when asked, I still need to be living my own interesting life - so there are arrangements made, commitments given, and life sometimes feels almost as hectic as it was when I was a young parent.

The difference is that I can lay a great deal of it aside. And when I have to be grandma, I do.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cloudy morning

I started writing this before the current spell of dry weather, when I was longing for it to look and feel like summer. As the solstice is rather cloudier than anything we've seen in the past week, it seems a suitable time to finish it off and publish it...

As I step outside
the damp, birdsong air opens wide
freeing my claustrophobic brain
from the confines of waking thought
and the fears of night. Why do we
close ourselves in grey, these days
that threaten rain? I want to
sing with the birds in the promise
of the new light, the freshness of green - to forget 
to fear the darkness that awaits 
at this day’s end, at all our ends.

And in the rain-washed morning
a hidden bird repeats why
not, why not, why not?

© C.M.M. 06/14

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Time to think ... about Synod

P's & G's, complete with MDF gallery?
By the time I finish writing this, I'm sure everyone else will have moved on. But if I had attempted a blog post about Synod at the weekend, when all the other bloggers (sounds rude, that) were getting their posts out, I would have written something I'd subsequently regret. No; I needed time to reflect. And I'm glad I did - I hope I remember to return to why later.

Having been one of the signatories to a Rule 10 motion that would have hastened us along the path to legislating for same-sex marriage in church, I was pretty fed up when the motion failed to attract the two-thirds majority that would have allowed us to deal with the subject in open debate. Synod wanted the debate - but not quite enough of us wanted it. I have a strong suspicion that the secret ballot, as we tautologously referred to it, along with the confusion resulting from a bishop-led objection to a show of hands, led to several inattentive or merely poor souls voting the wrong way - in other words, not as they actually thought they were voting.

This raises another scunner (no, auto-correct, not scanner: I'm Scottish.) The venue for this year, the once-grand and now modernised cavern of P's & G's, didn't make for the same contact with the chair as we had in the more regimented but better-lit surroundings of Palmerston Place. Punters in the middle or rear of the space couldn't communicate confusion or unreadiness without a great deal of palaver involving roving mikes and the bearers of the mikes peering into the throng to try to find the confused/challenged/challenging one. This being the case, it was more than ever important for the various chairs to speak with clarity and decision, and certainly not to rely on the overhead screens to make up for the deficiencies in their own communication skills. (People don't always cast their eyes screenwards in moments of stress, especially when they're rummaging through their Synod papers and have their reading glasses on anyway.) And, as every teacher knows, you can't simply assume that everyone is paying attention the moment you open your mouth; the table-group layout makes (again, as every teacher knows) for covert communication or simple distraction.

But the single thing that got to me this year was the sudden descent of a whole bunch of protagonists into fuzzy, warm and ultimately vapid religious jargon. And tone. There. That's it. There's a whole raft of expressions that belong in this jargon, and some others that are pressed into service and will never be quite the same again (like Francis of Assisi after Margaret Thatcher had appropriated his words).  "Unpack" comes to mind, and they're not talking about the messages (shopping, if you're not from these parts). No-one called a spade a spade, let alone a bloody shovel, and there was no place for what one commentator has described as "honest fury". Those who were feeling such fury had nowhere to go, because it would have been smothered in soft fuzziness, smiled at and forgiven.

Now, I was personally grateful for individual kindness and concern in the aftermath, even as I still raged for friends old and new whose hurt and frustration were all too apparent - but I have huge problems for this kind of institutionalised, forced gentleness. For a start, I think it betrays the god I believe in. I think it castrates the prophet and makes a virtue of passivity. And where was the passion, the leadership that would have given some sense of a vibrant community realising its past and grasping the opportunity to move into a new, juster present?

I can't at the moment think if I'm actually at the end of my time on Synod, or if I have another year to go. Maybe someone reading this will be able to tell me. The Primus gave us a sliver of hope that things may move in 2015, but who knows whereI'll be then? A friend gave me even more hope in that  his perceptions have changed post-Synod, and that is joyous news. That's the news that makes me glad I waited to post this, as there would have been nothing to redeem the situation had I leapt in. But if anyone is planning any more soft play areas for the church, any more padded "conversations", I'll be returning to a quip that was going the rounds on Facebook recently:

If anyone asks you "What would Jesus do?", remember that overturning tables is always an option.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Of fear (with a nod to Bacon)

Does anyone read Bacon's Essay's in school any more? I doubt it. They don't really strike one as everyday fare for your average 16 year old. And yet ... I have provided a link there that leads to one of the essays, Of Death, that I read when I was in S4, one whose opening sentence sticks in my mind to this day - and I have not exactly read them regularly since. I did, however, on one occasion in living memory - in the 90s, I think - find myself being given sole charge of a wonderfully sparky group of new S3 pupils for the whole of their Standard Grade course, and filled the short month of June with a crash course in Bacon. They rose to the challenge, and when I set them the further challenge of 'doing a Bacon' over the summer holidays, came up with some wonderful almost-parodies.

And in a way, that's what I'm doing now. Only I'm not bothering to write in a Baconesque style - I doubt I could - but rather seek to examine fear in much the same spirit as Bacon might. That adventure that formed the hub of my last post - we've been dining out on it, as I knew we would, and some people - in the comments on the blog, or on Facebook, or to my face - have expressed wonder at our bravery in surviving all this. Of course, it wasn't bravery. It was necessity - and I suspect that though they sometimes coincide, that wasn't the case for us. Why? Because there was no fear to overcome.

Think back to Bacon (for of course you've checked the link by now - no?) Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark. That's the line that sticks - and it's true, even if we'd object to the male presumption these days. But that's because we have time in which to contemplate our mortality, worry about the nature of our dying, fret about its propinquity. (I think I'm being infected ...) But when we were in that little speedboat, weighed down with boots and packs so that if we'd fallen into the sea we'd have had a job ever coming up again, all during that time when the waves were breaking over us and the cliffs seemed too close, there was really no time to feel afraid. I wasn't happy, and in fact every fibre of my being was screaming - but it wasn't in fear. No, it was screaming something like "You stupid people - this is not a good place to be! It's wet and dangerous!" - and so on, like a nagging parent you soon get used to ignoring.

Even when we had to transfer from one bouncing boat to another, all I could feel was a kind of distaste - and a strong desire not to make a fool of myself. I realise now that the latter pushed aside the realisation that people could be trapped between boats, crushed or killed - because it was afterwards that I thought about these outcomes. At the time there was a bit of swearing, the odd shriek, and obedience ("Now, lady - jump!" and I jumped). There was none of the paralysing fear that grips your gullet, gives you pins and needles in your hands, makes you want to vomit. How do I know these symptoms? Because I can get them - when I have to catch an early flight, perhaps, or when I think something awful has happened/might happen to someone I care about - not consistently or predictably, but with hideous randomness of occasion and severity, rendering me useless and nauseous and able to think only of the worst possible outcome.

Perhaps Hamlet had it all along. It's "some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th'event" (outcome, here). I wasn't thinking of the outcome, I was thinking only of the present - or, to be more precise, I wasn't thinking at all. I was doing. Hamlet again, fighting pirates - "In the grapple, I boarded them": he wasn't thinking while he fought, because he had to get on with it; it was only when he allowed himself to fret about the morality of killing his uncle in cold blood that he was in trouble. When his uncle was obviously indulging in wickedness, Hamlet could bump him off in hot blood and die content. (Sorry for the spoiler, if you don't know the story ...)

To round this off, I want to think briefly about war. We've been watching these old guys who were once young and seasick on the approach to the Normandy beaches and who are now lauded as heroes - and yes, they are heroes, and survivors, and human, and ordinary, all at once. When I was a post-war child, listening to my parents' stories, whether of bombs on neighbouring tenements or booby-trapped oases in the Western Desert, I used to wonder how people could bear it. How did they survive at all? Why did they not simply die of fear, curl up in a corner and never come out again? And I suspect that the answer is that when something frightening is happening to you, you get on with it. As long as it's actually happening, and you have to act in some way, there isn't time for the fear to overflow. The adrenaline has other uses than to make you feel sick.  These soldiers who landed on the beaches - they were sick with the sea and God knows what else, but when the ramps were down they were off, and they were soldiers.

And of course, I know all this - but actually I know it as I know far too many things: from fiction. From reading. But it has taken me till now, because someone else landed me in a situation that could have had a very different ending, to own the knowledge  that fear will only paralyse if you let it.

And, not to end on a moralising note, I have to confess that I've been seduced by Bacon, and may read some more of his essays before I close that tab. Because the books are gone, long gone ...