Monday, April 27, 2015

Being Wilma, or a day in the life of a church organist.

I shared the joke on the right the other day, on my Facebook page. Dead funny, eh? Wee Wilma with her big organ and her shotgun. Snigger. But it got me thinking, and then I was talking to an organist. (I do this frequently, you understand). And what follows is the result of my chat, and the sniggers we shared about Wilma - a joke I first saw on the timeline of another organist of my acquaintance.

Now we can't tell from this picture if Wilma is any good at the organ. After all, she's a wee old wifie who'd be fair game for a sneer anyway. But that's not the point. This is:

If the organist plays a prelude (the music before the service, if it's not a familiar word) he or she (I shall give this dual gender up from now on - take it as read) has probably taken time to choose what to play (I can't do that one again - someone will notice I did it last week ...) and had a bit of a practice at it. If she wanted to use the pedals, that would probably mean spending time in the unheated church (midweek church is usually baltic) because she doesn't have an organ in her sitting-room.

Sunday comes, and Wilma is there early enough to change her shoes and get her music out. She may have to put the hymn numbers up as well, but she hopes someone will be there to help with this. Five minutes before the service begins, she sits on the organ bench. There is bedlam in the church as people greet one another loudly, argue over whose turn it is to read, or just catch up on the week's news. She starts to play, straining to hear the quiet passages above the noise. It's still noisy as she finishes, but as if by magic the very fact of her ceasing to play quietens people - because someone will likely announce the first hymn any minute now.

And that's only the Prelude.

By the end of the service, the valiant Wilma has played five hymns and accompanied the singing of the Liturgy. (We're in a Pisky church ...). Depending on the preference of the celebrant, the procession will either wait for Wilma to play something else (a Postlude) or will start processing in the expectation that she'll get going in a moment. So Wilma plays again. This week, she's playing something rather beautiful by Orlando Gibbons. Last week, she hadn't had time to look out something and instead extemporised on a tune that had been used for a hymn. She has a gift for improvisation, but is never satisfied with her own efforts. This matters not a jot: the congregation had burst into spontaneous applause at the end. Not so this week. The Gibbons flows serenely to its conclusion and, released from prayer and politeness, the congregation gets back to its conversations.

Wilma isn't happy. She knows all too well that the Gibbons met the musical needs of perhaps two people in the church besides herself. She also knows that she could improvise tear-jerkers or rabble-rousers every day of the week, but that wouldn't make her happy either. She can't help wondering if the people who applaud one week and not the next know how insulting they are. She ponders the possibility of playing nothing outwith the actual service (and did you know that the use of "outwith" is confined to Scotland and that's why I have a red dotted line under it just now?) Would it worry people, having nothing to signify that it was time to be quiet, time to go for coffee?

Who knows. Most of all, actually, Wilma wishes one thing.

She wishes they wouldn't applaud.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Road to Siem Reap

Listening to Vaughan Williams as I am borne along 
a Cambodian highway
the red dust billowing at our passing
I hear the cool, silver tones
of choristers in the echoing chill of
vaulted stone and know
as never before
the music rooted in the land
of its gestation.  A white ox
wanders over dusty grass
as the road beneath our wheels
Turns to dry, rutted mud
and the red cloud envelops
two small determined girls
emerging from a school
as crisply clad as if they too 
could sing qui tollis peccata
with the boys whose voices sound
a million lives away.

C.M.M. 03/15

I actually wrote this on a bus - an air-conditioned coach - on a six-hour journey over roads of varying degrees of completion through Cambodia. I scribbled it on the back of a daily bulletin in handwriting that I could barely decipher and transcribed it onto my phone notes when we stopped. I was listening at the time to Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, consumed by the strangeness of the contrast between what I heard and what I was seeing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A glimpse of heaven

It is 4.15am when the phone rings. Our alarm call drags me from sleep in the strangely lucid state that such sudden awakenings sometimes bring and I am slathering on the Rid (an Aussie DEET preparation) almost before Mr B has put the phone back. By 5am our group is out of the hotel in the warm darkness heading for Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I am hauled off the coach to have my photo taken, and return with an entrance card round my neck. The photo on it looks pale, wary. My photo.

Equipped with torches of varying efficiency, we are led through the dark. We concentrate mainly on our feet, and on not walking into the person in front. Beyond my pathetic circle of light, the blackness seems absolute. I cannot tell how many people are on this pilgrimage, but sense their presence.

My earpiece crackles. After sunrise, meet under that banyan tree. I can see our guide pointing left. The tree referred to is an intensification of darkness, nothing more. I have not the least idea of what a banyan tree looks like, having only encountered one in the rudimentary graphics of Jet Set Willy, but assume that in daylight I shall recognise my fellows if I see them.

We arrive in what feels like a wide open space. To my left, I realise there are lights, tables laid with some kind of biscuits in wrappers, bottles of fizzy wine, orange juice in cartons. Everywhere else it is still black. Underfoot I can now see dusty yellow grass, and we stop. Apparently we have arrived at the vantage point.

And there we stand. Slowly, the sky turns grey. A dark red glow appears in front of us, and for the first time I am aware of the outline of pointed towers. I put my torch off, and can see my companions as vague outlines in the gloom. The light keeps growing, and we hold up phones and tablets like some primitive offering. At one point it is as if someone has thrown a switch, as millions of cicadas strike up with their own dawn chorus. A cock crows. We drink some tepid bubbly, eat a cracker or two, and continue our watch. Behind us, the moon sails above a tattered palm tree.

And then it comes. The sunrise is every bit as amazing as one could hope for. I can see the reflection of the temple in the pool which is now revealed in front of us, where the tiny ripples of visiting mosquitoes create their own beauty. I insert myself between two large people to take the photo at the top of this post. We watch until the sun is clear of the roofs, then retrace our path to find the banyan tree. It is, after all, entirely recognisable - and the only such tree to be seen.

We still have a visit to make - we are about to go inside the walls, ascend to the highest level, see the surrounding jungle in the golden morning light. We will learn that only the God can live in stone houses, and we will see amazing stone carvings. We will not end this visit till 9am, when the daytime crowds start to arrive. It will be amazing and memorable. But even without it I would have been content. I have seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A visit to Hell

I've been putting it off, I realise - but now, before I allow it to fade in my mind, I have to write about my visit to Cambodia's Killing Fields. That's a sort of general name given to, I believe, more than one location, but the one we visited was near Phnom Penh, where a memorial park has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims. The "Killing Fields" name came from journalist Dith Pram, whose story was told in the film of the same name; the place we visited was called Choeung Ek.

And that's the history, briefly, and that's all we might have heard had we been with one of the other guides, the young men and women who looked after the other three groups every time we toured off ship. But our guide was older, probably in his mid-forties, and our guide had been there, in the heart of the process that the regime of Pol Pot initiated. This is really his story.

His name was Buntah, and that name was one of his first losses when the soldiers came for him. His family had fled Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived; his father was a teacher and would have been a target for the usual rounding-up of intellectuals. Fortunately, his father's hobby was carpentry, so he was saved by the callouses on his hands in the first few encounters with terror. They settled in a village, and life went on. Buntah had seen how some of his friends had been taken away by groups of soldiers, and told his mother he was scared it would happen to him. No, she said. You're too small. He was seven.

One day he had come home from school and was waiting for his parents to return when the soldiers came. Come with us, they said.
Can I wait to tell my parents?
No, no need. Come.
Buntah asked permission to go back into the house for a moment. He left his red cap on a table, a pre-arranged sign, and went with the soldiers. He never saw his parents again, and has no idea where they are buried. He was seven.

The next three years gave him the nightmares that had kept him from sleeping the night before this first trip with us, that wakened him every time he knew he would have to relive them for others. During that time, he forgot his name, answering only to the name the comrades gave him. At ten, he learned to use an AK47 rifle. After the lesson, the older soldier told him that someone would start running over the field in front of them. Try to shoot him, he said.
I don't want to do that.
All right - give me the gun. You start running.
And Buntah took aim, and succeeded in shooting the running fugitive. It took him 28 shots. He felt bad about that.

This child, this primary-school-aged child, served at Choeung Ek, and at Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison created in a Phnom Penh school. He told us how victims were killed - not shot: that would waste ammunition. No, they were clubbed and their throats cut. His voice broke several times as he told us of these things, especially when we came to the tree where infants had their brains dashed out.
Strangely, it seemed, he was smiling one moment and weeping the next. I didn't understand the smile of embarrassment until it was explained, much later.

We stood on the iron-hard dry earth of the paths between shallow pits from which hundreds of bodies had been retrieved. We had to watch our step: the rainy season washed the paths away and exposed more bones every year, bones which had become
set as in concrete. They would be rescued when it rained again. There were shreds of black clothing; a tattered jacket hung on some wire. If we looked up, the surroundings were beautiful with blossom and trees, while at our feet it was entirely hellish. None of us spoke; we couldn't even look at one another.

Later, at Tuol Sleng, Buntah told us how he'd had to help with the torture of high-ranking prisoners. Every so often, his pronoun would change - from "they did this" to "we did this". Every time he did this, I shivered. He told us about the scar on his shaved head - how a comrade had battered his head with a rifle because he'd caught the boy eating grass in his hunger. Stealing even the ears of long grass was a crime against the regime. He had lain unconscious for hours before crawling to a hut. It was never stitched. We could see that for ourselves. He was ten years old.

It was malaria that saved him. When he became ill and couldn't work, he was discarded. A woman took him in, looked after him. When he heard that the Vietnamese army was coming, he fled into the jungle. He lived. He was discovered by a cousin, who called him by the name he'd forgotten after being brainwashed. The cousin and Buntah were the only survivors of a family of 14. Buntah had to take up school again, learning at 13 the things he'd known six years earlier. He spent a year in a Buddhist monastery, repenting, meditating, studying. He learned English and now teaches his neighbours in the evenings. He has a wife and a son, to whom, one day, he will tell his story.

But I think the repentance for what he was forced to do as a small boy is a life sentence. His work condemns him to remember - and this kind of work, guiding tourists, is coveted in a country that is still so poor. So we were the agents, that hot morning, of another bout of nightmares and self-flagellation, a hot morning that changed us all.