Monday, August 30, 2010

Are you a dead fish?

Only dead fish follow the current ...
are you a dead fish?

Glen Coe

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Book Notes: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd, the early 20thC Aberdeenshire novelist, had a lifelong love of the Cairngorm Mountains. She spent vast amounts of time exploring its lochs, glens, summits, the high plateau and the mountain passes that slice through it. "The Living Mountain" is her reflections on a life spent in the high mountains, amongst its landscape, flora, fauna and people.

Shepherd's knowledge, and powers of observation and ability to articulate the experience of being in the mountains; makes this a book which is charming, captivating, and delightful. It is unlike any other mountain book I have ever read, being neither a route-guide, nor an account of heroics, but rather a reflection on the life of the mountains themselves and how we are affected by time spent in amongst its life.

Her chapter on 'water' contains many recollections, observations and an engaging discussion on the way in which water in the mountains can be clear, gentle, soft and inviting, yet a river in spate ripping into the terrain can be a thing of dread. The following two paragraphs are a nice example of her writing, again from the 'water' chapter, but here on the feel and sound of mountain water.

Half a century or more ago, when Nan Shepherd walked the mountains, she noted with sadness the decline of traditional Highland crofting. She writes with deep affection of these people of the Cairngorms and their unbelievably tough lives, meagre comforts and hard, hard work in the harsh environment. When she walked she was welcomed to stay in countless crofts which dotted the landscape, by farmers who while they often thought hillwalking to be utter folly; would gather together on freezing blizzard-strewn nights, to search for missing climbers.

She writes of the pleasures of sleeping in mountains, of mountain plants, and animals, of hillwalking companions and of the landscape itself. While she speaks of the mountain in almost personal terms, usually she does so in metaphorical anthropomorphisms, although perhaps her language stays beyond that towards a perhaps a pantheistic perspective. While I was with her on the first, the latter seemed to me to be a cul-de-sac. This is because while everything she writes about the mountain is so true, so poised, so beautiful and resonant with my own mountain experiences; I remain convinced that this beauty is not the end of the matter. To me the fawn grazing in the sunrise, the deep water of Avon, the cliffs of Braeriach, the arch of a icy-cornice, the lives of the characters who once lived in these hills all bear the imprint of a personal creator, whose exuberant creativity is displayed here.

This book is a treasure trove for lovers of the Highlands in general and the Cairngorms in particular. While every description of the mountain, or of days spent there creates a longing in me to return there. Yet while I cannot, Shepherd's book is the closest thing to being transported there that I can imagine.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Little Sister's Wedding!

Guests being arranged for a photo..

Last Saturday was a significant day in our family, my little sister got married! The girls spent the morning at the hairdressers (etc!), while the boys chose the more hair-raising and adrenaline rushing option of canyoning for essential pre-wedding preparation. However, come the afternoon there was serious business to attend to, and the real reason we were all actually there; a wedding!

The ceremony itself took place on the banks of Loch Leven near Ballachulish at the North end of Glen Coe. With the Mamore Mountains, and the Pap of Glencoe across the loch behind the bride and groom - it was hard to imagine a more idyllic backdrop for the occasion. The registrar who led the proceedings maintained a nice balance in making it an informal, but yet serious event - striking exactly the right tone. Mrs Hideous & I were asked as the official witnesses to stand with them as they said their vows, and signed the register too. My Mum & I read poems in the ceremony, my Dad 'gave here away' in traditional fashion, while my daughter was a gorgeous little bridesmaid!

Having an outdoor wedding in the Western Highlands carries a certain amount of risk. The annual rainfall up there is staggeringly high, and the chances of sunshine dismally low. If you were fortunate enough to have chosen a sunny day for the wedding, the possibility of being eaten by midgies is just too terrifying to contemplate! Happily, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and a gentle wind blew in across the loch to tame the midgie menace, for most of the afternoon!

A meal, some speeches and a few tears later we sat chatting listening to live music in the bar, and eating the cupcakes that Mrs Hideous, my Mum and Lady Lucan had spent days preparing. Spotting that many people in the bar area were not with the wedding party, young 'Doris' decided to guard the cupcakes and challenge anyone who she thought shouldn't be eating one.

One by one we all said our goodbyes and went off to our beds, carrying various bundles of sleepy, but over-excited children! Eventually, even the singer in the bar called it a night, and with hugs and congratulations to the happy couple, we too brought the great day to an end. It was great to be with them on their special day, with all their friends and family. Now I just have to get used to the idea that my little sister is someone called Mrs Richardson!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Although the picture isn't mine (it comes from visitscotland), it is a good representation of the way that we spent Saturday morning! We had driven up to Glencoe on Friday evening, for my little sister's wedding on Saturday afternoon. My sister, my daughter (who was the bridesmaid) and my wife were all off for the morning getting hair, make-up, dresses and so forth organised. Thankfully less than five hours before he got married, my sister's soon-to-be-husband had organised an altogether more exhilarating trip for the boys; up to Inchree to the Vertical Descent centre for a few hours of Canyoning.

In case Canyoning or Gorge-walking is something with which you are unfamiliar, the concept it quite simple. The instructor explained it something like this: we climb into the river, and make our way down the gorge, and over the waterfalls using a combination of swimming, sliding, zip-lines and jumping. So, in wet-suits, life-jackets and climbing helmets we took to the water. The first few slides (yes, just lie on your back and float over a waterfall!) were great. The boys were a little nervous, but loved it. Young 'Norris' was wrapped in so many layers of wet-suit that he couldn't move, so had to be piggy-backed or towed through the water.

The instructor took all the younger ones for a climb on a ledge behind a major cascade. This brought them out onto a rocky ledge about 8/9 ft above the water. One by one they all took the plunge down into the water below! It was wonderful to watch each very anxious face on the ledge, with a leap and a splash emerge from the water with a huge ear-to-ear grin! Another highlight was a steep zip-line which enabled us to leap from the top of a huge set of falls, whiz down the cable and splash into the pool below. Another fun slide, took us into a 'washing machine' where the rotating water tries to pull the swimmer back, time and time again. Only with some good handholds on the rock can you pull free of the swirling bubbly water!

The younger ones were taken back to the centre to dry off, but the adults were taken to the last challenge - a huge leap! The steep path ended suddenly, 32ft above a dark pool, with a waterfall crashing into it. It looked impossibly high, but the instructors assured us that as long as you leapt far enough out and landed in the 'black water', it was 16m deep, and perfectly safe! Unable to see the first people jump - I was simply horrified as there was almost a second's delay between when they yelled as they leapt off - and when they splashed. When I got to the top of the climb and looked down at the swirling waters far below, I had the most unnerving adrenaline rush and dizzy feeling. The secret I discovered was to remove my glasses! I had to do so, or risk losing them on impacting the water. Given a little extra courage by the resulting loss of clarity I took a step to the edge, and then another step - out into air... Technically, it was hopeless. Unable to stop my legs rising up, instead of silently slipping beneath the skin of the water like a vertical pencil; my legs slapped it, with a thud. Within seconds I swam back to the surface and off to the side, shaking with terror, and grinning inanely. I'm glad I managed it, but (like several of the group) not entirely sure I could do so again!

My personal opinion is that all weddings should start like this!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Notes: Death by Love by Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears

This is a quite extraordinary book. As is typical of the ever controversial Driscoll, he is in turns brilliant, perplexing, bewildering, fabulous and irritating. This book may bear all those hallmarks of Driscoll - but taken as a whole is a compellingly brilliant read. It is stimulating to the mind, challenging to the core, refreshing to the soul and, ultimately glorifying to Christ.

There has been something of a theological spat in recent years over differing ways of interpreting the death of Jesus Christ on the cross; what it achieves and how it relates to us. Different models, such as 'propitiation', 'Christus Victor' or 'expiation', have been sometimes claimed to be the only valid interpretive model. Driscoll cuts through this argument with two bold strokes. The first is that all of the models which the Bible uses are valid, and are like a diamond's facets, and are not in competition with each other. Christus Exemplar is not the preserve of Liberals, and Propitiation not the preserve of fundamentalists; but all of the scriptural devices used to explain this most important event should be explored, accepted and embraced. The second is that the different models of understanding this 'atonement', can be especially helpful for people in different life situations. Expiation might be especially potent for someone who feels defiled by sin, while Christus Exemplar might especially help someone struggling to remain faithful to their calling while enduring hardship.

These are significant and helpful insights. The way that the authors develop them is then an enormous surprise - especially if you expect such matters to be the subject of impossibly weighty theses. Instead each chapter contains a character sketch of a person that the authors know well, and the situation they face. We meet the angry, the vulnerable, the wicked, the gentle, the molested, the liar. Each chapter is then a pastoral letter which seeks to explain the aspect of the atonement that will especially confront, help and ultimately free the person. As so many reviewers have noted, the authors do not denounce counselling or psychology, but they do expect that embracing these orthodox Christian understandings of the cross will liberate these people. Some of these pen portraits are deeply moving. The explanations of the theological models usually pretty clear, and passionately argued. It makes this book a brilliant little resource for understanding the differing aspects of the cross, and feasting the soul on Christ as your appreciation for him grows.

There are, of course, some reservations. For all his brilliance as a communicator of theological ideas, Driscoll is an irrepressible sensationalist. All the pastoral situations are rather extreme, although regular folks might see themselves in them a bit! Likewise, Driscoll seems to want to use the doctrine of hell to shock, mentioning it in one chapter more than the whole of the New Testament. Now this might not indicate error, but it certainly doesn't suggest balance. Obviously the thrust of propitiation is that Christ bore the wrath of God in our place; and so it is boldly and obviously relevant, but not as a shock-tactic, as if this was tabloid theology. Stott's The Cross of Christ, which Driscoll cites approvingly, manages not to evade hard teaching, but succeeds in weighting the argument to give the overall a more biblical shape. Likewise, Driscoll's hard-line views on gender-roles are a rather odd intrusion into a book about the atonement, and one hobby-horse that could be given a day-off once in a while.

The most irritating thing about Driscoll though is his uniformly flattering self-references! Although he does admit that before his conversion he was something of a rat. I am always uncomfortable with authors and speakers who want to tell their audience about quite how wonderfully they have succeeded in an area of life or faith. I think there is a cultural gap here between the states and the UK here though. I suspect that in the UK in a somewhat more diffident culture, such self-references come across as raging arrogance, whereas audiences in the States are more keen to know that a speaker has tried, and tested the message he is propounding. What passes as authenticity there, just sticks in our throats here! Frankly, I really, really gained in knowledge and understanding of the cross, and of Christ, but really, really didn't need to know about what a great husband/father/role model Mark Driscoll is in his own estimation. Sorry.

This is one of the best books I have read all year. I have learned more, grown more, and gained more from it than from a whole host of other things. Yes - there are some serous problems with it. The greatest tragedy would be that some of the unnecessary eccentricities in the book prevented some readers grappling with its core - the majestic handling of the cross of Christ, and its application to real situations, to real people - that is to real sinners like us.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Last Miner (Edinburgh Fringe show)

"The Last Miner" is the latest production from innovative theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell. In 45 extraordinary and intriguing minutes, the touching premise (that a miner unable to face the closure of the pit around which his life had centred, refuses to vacate it, but lives on underground in a world of memories, and hopeless nostalgia) is outworked through puppetry, music, lighting and set.

We first meet the miner (with the complete absence of dialogue - we never even discover his name!) living in the dank underground. With evident love and sadness, he continues to service and maintain the subterranean equipment that once drilled and transported men and coal through the caverns. Whether he hopes that one day the mine might possibly re-open, or whether he is just unable to let go of the past, we don't know - either way, he cuts a tragic and isolated figure as he toils in the darkness to keep his dream alive.

The audience is once given a window into the memory-world in which the Last Miner lives. When he takes his wife's wedding dress out of its chest for cleaning, it sparks off a dream sequence in which the past comes alive. Not only is his love still alive, but the pit is alive too, as is the community surrounding it. But dreams must end - and the reality is that despite the company of his canary and a pit pony, his days in the pit cannot go on indefinitely. Roof-falls, and bad-air threaten his existence and the Last Miner is faced with a difficult choice. He must either stay down below, clinging to the past, and memories and the way he wishes things were - a choice which will kill him. Or he must head for the surface, to face the new realities of a changing world, a world he fears, distrusts and doesn't comprehend. In the final scene he makes his greatest decision...

The play transported me back to the 1980s. Studying A-levels during the Thatcher years, I had a politically aware Geography teacher who took us to see one of the pit towns in the wake of the closure of the industry around which their whole community had revolved. Many of the people there faced The Last Miner's dilemma, (although not literally underground). Some wanted to fight to defend an old way of life, others gave up and fled the place into the uncertain outside. The play need not be interpreted so literally however. While the mining context might be a brilliant device, it could be equally be aimed at anyone facing a situation of unwelcome change; and facing haunting choices between clinging to a decaying memory or striding into an uncertain future.

What makes The Last Miner so effective in unearthing these feelings is that the story is disarmingly told through puppets. What is remarkable is the pathos and emotion that a puppet with an expressionless face is able to convey when in the control of skilled hands. Someone I was with commented that the sadness of the old miner was transmitted through the tenderness, and love with which puppeteer Arran Howie cradled and manipulated the puppet with her hands. An astute and telling observation.

I was interested in the way in which the different members of my family reacted to the play. The adults were intrigued. Our ten year old really enjoyed it - and understood what it was about. Billed as being for 7+ we didn't expect our five year old to grasp it - and it was far too subtle for her. Our 8 year old in the middle however was interested enough to be bothered that he didn't 'get it', but he had observed well enough for it to come alive in his mind with some explanation afterwards. Interestingly, on the afternoon we were there, the audience was almost entirely adult. I would say, as a parent, that it is worth taking under 10s to The Last Miner, but it might also be worthwhile giving them some explanation beforehand about the play, its themes and things to look out for.

This company's show last year was a psychedelic carnival of laughter, characters and fantasy called Twine. The Last Miner could not be more different, it is thoughtful, poignant, sombre and memorable. It deserves the good reviews it has been receiving too.

The Last Miner plays at the Hill Street Theatre, daily at 3pm (except Tuesdays).

Stob Ghabhar & Stob a Choire Odhair

The hills of the Black Mount are often overlooked. This is probably because they have the misfortune (as far as their own reputation is concerned) of being merely the prelude to the grandeur of Glen Coe, on the drive Northwards up Scotland's west coast. If these hills did not keep such august company, they would be better known, I am sure.

The whitewashed Bridge of Orchy hotel is a well-known landmark on the A82 - and a place in which I have enjoyed several fine post-hillwalking meals. Yesterday, after meeting 'Roymondo' at Crianlarich, we took the backroad that leaves the A82 by the hotel and skirts Loch Tulla before culminating at a walkers car-park at the end of the public road.

In perfectly still, warm muggy humid air, with no sunshine, this tree-surrounded car park contained an unbearable frenzy of midgies. I haven't experienced midgies like it - in years. They were fierce, biting, swarming, itching - absolutely horrific. Giving up all thoughts of leisurely changing, we grabbed all our stuff from the car boot and jumped straight back into the car, putting the 'blowers' on full, to pack our rucksacks and insert feet into walking boots. As we did so - we watched the car windows steadily blackening with scores of midgies, which continued to plague us for much of the day.

The route, from Victoria bridge and over these two munros is fairly straightforward. We continued along the road over the bridge to the lodge, turned westards along the track alongside the river and continued until a little green tin shack, at which we took the path northwards up the glen. The stalkers path which climbs up the slopes of Stob a Choire Odhair from the main path is easy to miss - nevertheless if you take to the hills immediately after crossing a significant burn the path becomes obvious within 30/40m - and barely disappears for the rest of the day.

The summit of Stob a Choire Odhair is straightforwardly enough reached at the head of a zig-zagging path, and rewards the walker with fine views in return for fairly modest effort. In between clouds, and through hazy light Glen Coe's great shapes were as visible looking Northwards as the Orchy hills and views across the watery expanses of Rannoch Moor were the other. A well-worn path threads its way down the hill, along a ridge and up the bouldery slopes of Stob Ghabhar. Stob Ghabhar is undoubtedly the finer - as well as being the higher of the two hills. We were denied the massive view which this peak should have afforded by our ascent into the cloud base. On balance however this was good thing! As is so often the case, while the air below the clouds can be still, hot and humid - once in the cloud it can be windy and chilly. This meant that at last we could sit and eat lunch in conditions which presented a good challenge for the midgies!

Two ridges protrude southwards from Stob Ghabhar, one is long, grassy and gentle, the other known as the Aonach Eagach, ends in a blunt nose of rock requiring some scrambling. We selected the easier of the two routes and followed the ridge down, on an occasionally appearing path, to a river crossing - which took us back on to the same route we taken into the hills.

These are charming hills, with easy access and fast walking onto pleasant ridges with far-reaching views. As two simple Munros in great walking country, they don't attract the vast crowds of Glen Coe and are all the better for it. They don't present an enormous physical challenge but provide an excellent day of solid and enjoyable hillwalking.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Notes: Flat Earth News

Nick Davies set out to deliberately break the unspoken code of honour which exists amongst investigative journalists: he investigated the state of journalism itself! The results should be deeply concerning to anyone who cares about everything from decency to democracy - anything in fact which depends on the pursuit and telling of truth. What is equally amazing is the enormous number of journalists who have queued up to endorse Davies' findings. This adds enormous weight to Davies argument that what he found were not isolated incidents of poor practice, but illustrations of an industry which is structurally flawed at every level.

Davies' examines what he calls "flat earth stories". That is the way in which the media is too lazy to ever question society's assumptions; when simply using stories to play upon those existing assumptions is easier. He examines the way in which the story of the mythical "Millenium Bug" became a flat-earth story, how the press ran with it, despite lack of credible evidence, and caused a stir which influenced individuals, companies and governments. Other examples might include the many articles which assumed that Saddam had WMD's.

The heart of the book however looks at the structure of the media industry, reporting on changes which have occurred over the last thirty years which have left traditional journalism weak, compromised and vulnerable to manipulation. Rather than citing the intervention of politically motivated owners as the key problem Davies' suggest that this is only a small problem. Far bigger is the commercial pressures of the modern marketplace which mean that the average journalist is working under the pressure to produce stories at a breakneck pace. Whereas the traditional journalist check sources, and interviews witnesses and writes investigative reports - the norm today is what Davies calls "Churnalists" who never leave their desks, but simply sit at their desks churning through the incoming information and processing it for publication. Many of these churnalists deeply resent the role into which they are cast - but simply have no choice. Newspaper sales are down, advertising is not growing, and each writer not produces almost ten times the volume of copy that their predecessors did. Some daily papers produce a publication twice the size than they did a quarter of a century ago, but on a fraction of the staff.

Structurally vulnerable, churnalists are very often at the mercy of the PR industry, and overly dependent on a few source of news information, notably the PA and Reuters. These wire services are committed to accurately relaying the opinions of their sources - but are not investigative journalists, committed to exposing falsehood, spin, or dubious claims. If the increasingly sophisticated PR officers who are part of a massive growth industry in information control, can manipulate the news-wire services, they have incredible access to massaging public opinion. Davies' also documents the use of the 'dark arts' that is illegal or immoral tactics used by journalists to gain information, whether political or celebrity gossip - in the absence of the thorough reporting of former days.

He closes his book with three cases. The Sunday Times Insight team, compared in its heydey, with its compromised and wretched condition under Murdoch's proprietorship, in which the profit margin is the only criteria. Interestingly, Andrew Neil's right-wing agenda at the paper is not interpreted as an imposition of Murdoch's personal views; but part of a deal with Thatcher over media de-regulation from which Murdoch stood to gain. The Observer's bizarre endorsement of the invasion of Iraq is also documented, in which inexperienced journalists were easily manipulated by Alastair Campbell's PR machine, to print all manner of falsehoods about Al-Quaeda, WMDs and the whole sorry saga of the dodgy dossier. Finally, the success of the Daily Mail is examined, as a case-in-point of the use of the 'dark arts', shoddy journalistic practice and the final triumph of money over morality.

While some of Davies examples don't quite support the weight he wishes to place upon them, and while one or two of the moral opinions he trumpets are debatable, this is a shocking and convincing book. While he sneers at 'balanced' articles which don't go for the jugular of the relentless pursuit of truth - but take the easy way out; he doesn't always justify how such issues should be identified or how cloudy issues might be handled. Nevertheless, he effectively dissects an industry in disarray, devoid of integrity and exposes the extent to which we the public are subject second-hand, to the manipulation of journalists. He sends up a noble plea to restore investigative journalism to its place as guardians (!) of the public interest, independent of state control or easy prey to conmen, spin-merchants and the information industry.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hello World!

Astute observers will have noticed that the little map in the column to the right recently lost all its little red dots, as every year or so the clustr map resets itself. Each visitor to this blog makes their little mark, or adds to the size of one of the dots already in place. People (or machines pretending to be people) have called in here from all over the place - remarkable really. Most surf in and out, some stay for a while, the bizarre few (you know who you are), seem to come back repeatedly; one or two even leave comments. One development over the last year has been the way in which more interactive social networks like Facebook have taken over from Blogs - if the level of responses to photos and posts is anything to go by.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Church Youth Camp : The Giggling Nightwatchmen

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Church Youth Camp : The Mess Tent

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Church Youth Camp

The View from the door of the Hideous' tent.

We're all back home from the church youth camp, absolutely exhausted, but having had a brilliant few days. I went out there with Boris, Norris and Doris last Wednesday, Mrs Hideous joined us on Thursday and we were all there together until tea-time Sunday. If I ever take things such as my own comfortable bed, or the pleasure of a hot-shower, for granted - then the youth camp is a corrective! The exhaustion doesn't seem to actually hit while at camp - the busyness, the adrenalin, the jobs needing to be done and the constant barrage of energy from the young people numbs the system - so that tiredness hits like a tidal wave upon returning home.

The church has been running the youth camp now for so many years in a 'field' a mile or so up a track from Forgandenny, that we have an established pattern for the camp. Every year there's the usual heady concoction of serious stuff, sports, games, competitions, and lunacy weaved in and out of the normal rituals of setting-up and clearing away meals.

As in previous years the camp had a theme which linked together the evening talks, the morning discussions and the competitions. This year the theme was 'sacrifice', looking both at the sacrifices required in being a disciple of Jesus, but ultimately looking at various aspects of the death of Jesus on the cross - the 'ultimate sacrifice', made for us. Between Ian, Jillian, John, Vicky, Alison, and Garry - we had some great teaching, and profound discussion around the themes. Some of the young people talked very movingly about their lives and their faith, while others said how much camp meant to them - as a place of refuge from the hostility they experience for being Christians at school etc.

As usual we were all divided into teams for games, sports, crafts and other creative competitions. Somewhat embarrassingly, each team was also required to perform a team chant/dance. Somewhat even slightly more embarrassingly these were all filmed! Somewhat even more embarrassingly than that - our team was called Baboon! which had more than a little influence on our routine.

The camp-concert this year was one of the best for years - one of the comic impressions by one of the young people of one of the adult leaders was so side-splittingly brilliant and so funny - that the whole marquee was in uproar. Good, good times!

Camp is a special place for so many of us. The atmosphere of co-operative generosity, sporting competativeness, jovial cheekiness, reverent humility when appropriate balanced by complete silliness at other times, of hard-work, and of around 50 people living together around a little community of tents is just unique. It's a also special as it is an event through which so many people have been spiritually blessed over the years. So many campers (and leaders alike) talk about how camp has renewed their faith, or for some was even the place where they came to put their faith in Jesus Christ in the first place.

Camp leaves me utterly drained, and completely exhausted. That's mostly because I am quite unable to get adequate sleep under canvass. Every ruffle of the tent, every 'moo' or 'baa' from outside, every rain-drop on the tent roof, every uncomfortable wriggle trying to get comfortable on the ground, I wake up! One night I barely managed three hours sleep in total. Nevertheless, it is a very contented, happy and worthwhile tiredness!