Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Notes: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson

Timothy Tyson has spent much of a lifetime seeking to understand the  key event of his childhood, and the fruit of that search is contained within this extraordinary book. Tyson was only ten in 1970 when one of his friends father and uncle were responsible for a grizzly racial murder, a latter-day lynching in which a young black man was beaten and shot for (allegedly) making a sexual remark to a white woman. The young Tyson watched his father a white Methodist pastor in the integrationist Martin Luther King Jr 'civil-rights' tradition, become alienated first by the advent of 'black power' on one hand and then being driven from his church and called a "N_____ lover" for his outspoken integrationism on the other. When an all-white jury acquitted the murderers in what has widely been cited as a gross miscarriage of justice, Tyson watched the flames of black revolt tear through the industrial heart of Oxford NC, as black power became an active resistance movement.

As Tyson reaches back into the history of his town, he rather beautifully interweaves the story of his family (a long line of civil-rights Methodists), his own story, the immediate story of the murder of Henry Marrow, the town's story and the wider narrative of the African-American struggle for equality in the Jim-Crow South, which was (shockingly) a thriving system in Oxford, six years after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

Central to Tyson's explorations is dismantling what he sees a key civil rights myth; namely that The Civil Rights Movement presented a morally decent and upright assault on the conscience of white America, a challenge to which they rose and duly abolished segregation and all its associated inhumanities. Tyson sets out to demonstrate that in Oxford, North Carolina - the local authorities had completely resisted implementing any of the equality legislation by 1970, preferring to shut facilities than face the thought of the mixing of the 'races'. Tyson explores the peculiarly psycho-sexual nature of much of this separatism, which sought to 'protect' (ie control) white female sexual contact with Black Men, while the obvious history of slavery is of white exploitation of black women's sexuality. Such a theme is naturally brought to the forefront when Henry Marrow's alleged crime for which he was 'lynched' was to make a sexual remark about a white woman.

The dilemma Tyson explores through the eyes of his Father is that while the Civil Rights Movement did indeed present a non-violent and idealistic appeal to the conscience of America; the conscience of North Carolina at least was utterly impervious to both that appeal and to Federal legislation. Tyson sees that his father could completely endorse the aims and methodology of civil rights, but could also see that integration hadn't happened with any due speed whatsoever, and lynchings were still excused in courts in 1970. When the Black Power movement armed themselves and bombed and firebombed Oxford's white community and its businesses, he could neither embrace their aims or methods. However, he could not deny that they finally managed to make the authorities listen to them and make serious changes to the racial power structures which had subjugated African Americans since the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which Reconstruction-democracy was violently overthrown. Tyson documents the Black community's efforts to re-take the initiative and seize back their rights, through traditional protests and arches coupled with violence and the threat of violence.

Blood Done Sign My Name, is a beautifully written book which brings together these divergent strands of autobiographical self-reflection, local history, social and political history and family history into a compelling and insightful window into the world of racial (not to say ecclesiastical) politics of North Carolina. Apparently the attempt to turn this book into a film was not very successful, and the book is a far better bet than the somewhat cliched and plodding drama that it spawned. Like so many books on this area of history, it constantly provokes the reader not to copy the mistakes of the oppressors, who were so driven by fear and hate of those unlike them that they diminished themselves by their inability to understand or value their common humanity. So too, is it inspiring to read of the heroic actions of people who fearlessly stood for what (as Christians) they defined as "righteousness". It is good to read of those both black and white for whom Jim Crow was not only an affront to the dignity of Black people, but that as all people are made in the image of God, it was likewise an affront to God Himself, and so they were empowered to proclaim righteousness even when they were run out of town.

This book has lingered on my shelves for a long time. If I had realised it was going to be this good - I would have read it a long time ago!

Book Notes: The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

For centuries shipping in Scottish waters was endangered by the country's perilous seas, dangerous coasts, savage storms, severe currents and partially submerged reefs, within shipping lanes. It did not require much professional analysis to work out where the most dangerous areas were, for communities grew rich by harvesting the fruits of the seas annual plunder from the their beaches, in the same spots year upon year.

Bella Bathurst's charming little book "The Lighthouse Stevensons" is a biography of the Stevenson family and their Edinburgh engineering firm, whose names will forever be associated with the construction of lighthouses around the Scottish coast. This very Victorian story (which begins before Victoria and ends after her reign) is a compellingly told story of bravery, ingenuity, determination, enterprise and skill. The unfolding generations of Stevensons who placed warning lights on far-flung peninsula's like Ardnamurchan, and who built great lighthouses out at sea in such places as Bell Rock, Skerryvore and Muckle Flugga; were all wildly different characters - but each of whom played a key role in saving lives with their engineering exploits. The most famous of the family was, of course, Robert Louis, who to the horror of the older members of the dynasty deserted engineering for the unworthy pursuit of literature!

This book is neither heavyweight social history, nor exhaustive biography; neither is it bogged down with footnotes or references. Rather it is a fast-paced easy-read which quite delightfully opens up a slice of history which is both important and fascinating. I was intrigued by Bathurst's account of the fatalistic sailors and islanders who thought that lighthouses were built in defiance of God, whose prerogative it was alone who determine the fate of those at sea! Fascinating too was the opposition the lighthouse-builders received from those who's wealth was dependent on the macabre trade of wrecking or foraging for the treasures of wrecks.  Equally intriguing are the stories of the way in which the difficulties of constructing great towers at sea, in dreadful conditions were overcome, as well as the ways in which the lighting systems evolved. The politics and finances of lighthouse-building, were equally engrossing. Bathurst traces the ambitions, the families, the characters, faith and achievements of this remarkable dynasty through to the present day.

From various remote places I have watched Scotland's lighthouses keeping their nightly vigil over the dark seas and been vaguely intrigued by them. Bella Bathurst's little book is the highly entertaining story of how they came to be there. Sometimes reading history is hard work, but this book is not intended to be that sort of history, it is more of a celebration of a thoroughly unique and intriguing chapter in Scots history.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I'm amused by the way that girls seem to look at this photo and say, "your two footprints in the snow, aww how romantic!" While what guys find most noteworthy about this image is that "her feet are a lot smaller than yours".

Seasonal Shot

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Changing My Attitude to All-age Church Services

My attitude to “all-age” church services has undergone something of a revolution in recent times. It was not that long ago that I was rudely dismissive of what I referred to as ‘pantomime services’ (!), because of the lighter approach required with youngsters, the shorter talks and the cringe-inducing invitations to “join in the actions” to the songs. Within the last fortnight I realised the extent to which my thinking has changed. When an all-age service was announced at my church, I was sitting in the middle of group of older people who greeted the news with a collective groan; while the person sitting next to me audibly sighed, “oh no!” It’s not that I do not sympathise with this sentiment, as it is one I used to share; but I was firstly surprised to hear it being expressed so forthrightly, and then to notice the revolution in my thinking.

I used to think that the presence of children in the service (and the necessary accommodation made to their limitations), meant essentially a dumming down of the proceedings. It would mean that I would not get a full sermon aimed at me, geared around my educational level, with application pitched at me and my contemporaries. “Dunno why I bothered coming – I didn’t learn anything” – summarised my attitude. I also used to think that by not bringing what I considered our “best”; that is to say our most theologically literate songs, and our most well-honed and nuanced Bible expositions, we were not presenting our ‘best’ to God. How could He not be dishonoured by His people doing this? Wouldn’t it be better to move the children aside in order to allow us to do better?

The first person challenge my thinking was the great Reformer, John Calvin. In the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, he wrote: 

“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." 

(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.13.1.)

This highlighted the issue for me with alarming clarity because I realised that I had misunderstood the situation profoundly. My view of matter had looked a little like this:

(this diagram only relates to levels of understanding/intellect)

In this view, we position ourselves far higher than the child, and much closer to GOD. We assume that with our minds we are able to comprehend, to seriously grapple and respond to the deep things of God; or dare I say it, presume to impress Him with our understanding. But Calvin’s quote demolishes all this. In his wise estimation, what we as adults have understood is because God has condescended, through incarnation and inspiration to reach down far, far, below Himself to speak to us. Our wisest thoughts, our greatest sermons, are puny in the light of the weight of His glory. So my diagram must immediately be re-written: and even this new diagram significantly under-estimates the full story!

(again, this diagram only relates to levels of understanding/intellect)

Simply put; I am convinced that while we think there is such a huge drop in profundity, of depth, of the worship of the mind, when we re-place singing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only-Wise”, with “Our God is a Great Big God”, for a morning; such thoughts do nothing more than reveal our spiritual pride before God. If God (as Calvin argues), must indulge us with “divine baby-talk”, in order to stir us to our greatest ever thoughts; then the drop when we condescend to the thought-world and vocabulary of a small child is, in the eternal scheme of things, virtually imperceptible.

When Jesus rebuked the disciples and allowed the children to come to him in that oft-quoted incident in the gospels; it must have been hard for them. Hard, not because earning a rebuke from the master is troubling; but because it was humbling to the point of embarrassment. If they thought they were making progress as disciples because of their status; such thoughts dissolved before the fact that Jesus condescends no more to bless a toddler than to teach us adults. 

The gathering together of the church is a necessary part of her worship. The Christian life was never meant to be expressed individualistically but corporately – as so much of the New Testament directs. What we do in such gatherings is important, indeed a whole chunk of 1 Corinthians was written to correct a church whose gatherings were more harmful than good, requiring urgent Reformation. The essence of this has to be, doing what God wants us to do, which may or may not be what we want to do, and may or may not be what we are comfortable with. So for some, engaging with Bible-teaching might be hard-work, but must necessarily follow as a discipline of the Christian life. Such teaching might offend our norms, both in content, and form – but if we think that God has condescended to speak to us this way; then we should not set much store by our counter-preferences. But what does God actually want in terms of our gatherings? 

In her recent book, “Children, Families and God”, Lynn Alexander argues (amongst other things), that God’s pattern in the Bible is for generations to come together before Him. This is certainly the case in the Old Testament, when the Israelite tribes were assembled, is the case in the ministry of Jesus (as noted), is invoked at Pentecost when Peter describes the New Covenant blessings as being for your children and your children’s children; in the epistles where the house-church context makes the discipline of the leader’s children a necessary part of church-life, and in Revelation where children are pictured in heaven’s streets. This is important.

Those damaging gatherings in Corinth where some refused to wait for the slaves to be freed from their household duties, before commencing the fellowship-meal; were given Paul’s “body of Christ” metaphor to chew on. Even the smallest member is considered vital and important; something without which the whole lacks. It seems clear to me therefore, that there is something about the gathering of the whole family of God before Him; with which The Lord is pleased. It is something He wants, has commanded, and so our approach to Him in unity something to be greatly prized and protected. Logistically, separate age-appropriate teaching is obviously going to be part of the life of a church community; but it cannot be at complete exclusion of the whole family of God coming together. If worship is not primarily about having ‘my needs’ met (however loftily I presume the fulfilling of them to be); but pleasing God; then my prejudice against children’s songs, even with the dreaded actions, has to go. A repeated refrain I hear from older Christians, when younger people say that they find the style of our public gatherings to be outmoded is that the young are “consumerist”, demanding that their personal preferences be adopted. It maybe true – but it is profoundly unhelpful when it comes from people whose cultural preferences and needs are met virtually all the time in church; and whose tenacious hold on content, format and style is the very definition of consumerism in worship! I am convinced that older Christians, need to lead the way here in demonstrating what it means to ‘prefer the other’, to defer to the needs of less mature believers on countless secondary matters which do not consist of vital articles of faith. In so doing, they can play a part in bringing the family of God together to worship, because worship is primarily about pleasing God, not ourselves.

Some of the people we are called to worship alongside are very small. They may not have a vast knowledge of the Bible, they may not be able to stand up and lead eloquently in prayer. They may respond especially well to music which some of us older people might consider to be a fearful racket. The slaves in 1 Corinthians were restricted in their freedoms, yet the believers there were not called to ignore them, but to wait for them, to take special heed of their circumstances and limitations. So we should with the younger members of our community.

Missionary work is the process in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is transmitted across cultures and languages. Pioneer missionaries often look for parallels between the Bible’s message and the culture they are living in, in order to make the word understood. These local symbols, customs and words are often picked up and expressed in worship-songs as the church roots and grows in new cultural contexts. This is all good, but while usually understood and accepted in terms of cross-cultural transmission, we need to realise again how important such principles can be in cross-generational transmission of the Bible. One children’s song that makes some people I know very cross features the lyrical claim that Jesus is “better than” and lists various superheroes from children’s TV and film. I have heard it described as irreverent tripe, as puerile and unfit for public worship. Well, indeed it would be if it were given to a congregation of OAP’s to sing! However, as a piece of missionary work, entering into the cultural landscape that children occupy and claiming it for Christ, it is good, relevant and timely. Just as Elijah’s generation needed to know that Baal had no power to set Mt Carmel’s altar alight, there are kids today who need to sing about the real hero of the world; who puts to shame the phony plastic heroes of their culture.

Descriptions of God which we use to honour Him in worship are sometimes described as being either “Cataphatic” or “Apophatic”. Cataphatic descriptions seek to say positive things about who God is and what He is like. Human language and concepts are obviously inadequate here, and we find ourselves using the best language we have, all the while accepting that we are recipients of divine accommodation, even as we use terms such as ‘righteous’, ‘holy’, ‘complete’. Adult worship when cataphatic must reach us and stretch us; that is it must say something we understand, but must provoke us to look away from ourselves and up to God. All-age worship should provide the same for kids, it must use expressions and images which children of different ages understand – it must draw on their thought-world. Then it must use this language to stretch them; to draw their thinking to new places, to God, to the cross of Christ, to heaven.

When worship is “apophatic”, it is when we use negative thoughts and images to describe what God is NOT like; things to which He stands in contrast. From the viewpoint of our fallen world, there are many examples to draw on! When we sing about God being completely without sin, or better than money (etc) we are using this category. Some theologians prefer apophatic worship to cataphatic descriptions of God because we are on very safe ground pointing to something flimsy, changeable, temperamental, flawed, wicked or dirty and singing about how God is quite unlike any of those things. So while we adults might sing, pray, and preach, about all this world’s goods and promises being nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ; children need to be allowed to express that He is better, far better than the thing which shines brightest in their world. If one youngster decides that Jesus is better than Lionel Messi – then that is as profoundly worshipful as when an adult seeks to dethrone money as the organising principle of his life. If a little girl sings with all her heart that Jesus is ‘better than Barbie”; then to you it might be trite and unworthy; but I believe that heaven rejoices with her. If the angels do not mock adult’s highest and noblest attempts to worship God (which from their lofty vantage point must often look a little silly) but want to join the voices of heaven with those on earth in praise; then we have no business in stamping on the flickering flames of worship being kindled in a child’s soul. 

My previous attitude to all age worship has had to change; I hope my prejudices and unease at some of it follows suit! There are times in such services, when I could rightly unleash my old-criticism that I “haven’t learnt anything”; but frankly I have been a Christian for more than two-decades and should by now be capable of taking some responsibility for my own spiritual development. If for one week a month (or however often an all-age service is held), I can’t read more, or download a sermon from the internet and listen to it, in order for a child to have the opportunity to respond to God; then I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself.

Recently I have been watching children during the musical-praise we provided for them in an array of Sunday morning services in various churches. The traditional children’s songs are sound, but twee, orthodox but cheesy – and played in arrangements which represent the culture and generation of the players not the children. It has been sad to see many, many children gloomily staring at the floor, completely unengaged in what we are offering them. A good friend of mine is a worship pastor in a large church, devoted to using music to assist God’s people worship. He contends that the Bible contains The Psalms’  lyrics but not the tunes or the arrangements to sing them to; not because of a lack of ancient musical notation, but by the plan of God. His view (with which I concur) is that we have been given the truths to sing, but have been left the task of constructing the music ourselves. This is not simply so that our God-mirroring creativity can be fully unleashed in all its imago-dei wonder, but also so that this vehicle is constantly relevant, constantly connecting, constantly engaging not alienating the participants. “The Musicians Union says keep music live” –  say the little yellow stickers on thousands of guitar cases! I agree. However, I have noticed that children consistently engage better with the recorded videos of praise songs that have been used. This seems to be for a number of reasons. Firstly kids love repetition, and the arrangements are identical each and every time you play the clip. Secondly, the arrangements and tempos just work culturally for them; if they have listened to guitar/bass/drums/ all week, they simply will not ‘get’ a semi-orchestral re-working of a song they love. Thirdly, and very significantly, the video-clips synch the lyrics very tightly to the music making it easy to follow, whereas a whole screen of text presents a barrier. I have heard this dismissed as ‘karaoke’ but that I suggest, misses the point. It meets kids where they are, which I maintain pleases God, which in turn makes it by very definition ‘worship’. 

All-age worship is not a new phenomenon. All-age worship does not necessarily imply that truth is dumbed-down or avoided. I am realising that I need to rediscover something from my own childhood here. I grew up in a determinedly Reformed Evangelical church, where the pastor was a noted Bible-scholar and expositor. People travelled a long-way to hear him preach – something which never surprised me because he was exceptionally gifted. Yet, the monthly family services he conducted were a highlight! He would sometimes do three short-talks instead of one 45 minute sermon, would use visual aids, would interact with and talk to the children; and this was in the 1970s! The seventies were a long, long time ago- and much has changed, Flannelgraph has come and gone and re-appeared in a kind of post-modern ironic parody of itself. Yet, while the specifics of all-age worship may have changed since 1977, the principles remain intact: the truths of the Psalms need to be re-voiced in a new idiom in 2012. God wants His family to meet, and to approach him together. This will involve the older, more mature, and wiser members of the congregation learning to mimic the divine-accommodation of God, who stoops way below Himself to condescend to address us in ways we can understand. If God in His mercy uses such “Divine baby-Talk” to reach down to us, then in fact, a mark of our own Godliness, and sanctification will be our willingness to imitate Him and stoop to those with less understanding than us. 

But please don’t make me “do the actions”, please!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Notes: At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

At their last meeting, the late Scottish poet Norman MacCaig issued his younger friend (and fellow writer) Andrew Grieg with a challenge. The challenge, which became a quest, which became an experience, finally became this remarkable and profoundly moving book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie. Grieg describes the genesis of the project like this: "I should like you fish for me at The Loch of the Green Corrie", MacCaig concludes over our final dram. "Only it's not called that. But if you go to Lochinver and ask for a man called Norman Macaskill, if he likes you he may tell you where it is. If you catch a trout, I shall be delighted. And if you fail, then looking down from a place in which I do not believe, I shall be most amused." So Greig, after MacCaig's demise and funeral, embarks for Assynt in order to pursue a challeneg and a trout in an idyllic spot in lonely Assynt for a dead poet.

The trip to find this loch is not really the subject of this book however, merely the occasion for it. What this book is really about is an exploration of friendship, of memory, of landscape and culture, and the older poet's fishing challenge the channel through which all this pours. What makes this book rather special (for such a prospectus could merely be the beginning of something rather odd) is Greig's quite marvellous writing. I don't recall ever reading anyone who is able to evoke the feel, sense, and history of the Scottish Highland landscape as Greig does, or to write so movingly of times, and friends lost. He sees the world differently than I do (in fact we Christians do not get an especially sympathetic write-up), but this does not dim the brilliance with which he is able to explore our common human condition, and so forcefully, indeed magically gather up so much of what we treasure and press it into the front of our consciences. This is one of those rare books which is so well written that I kept finding myself reading it out loud so as to not risk losing anything of the wonder sound of the language. "Are you reading that again?" my wife asks me.

Greig writes of MacCaig, of the wonderful landscape of Assynt, of company, of friendship, love, of death, of poetry, of whisky, of geology, of Scotland. He stands in the places were lost poets and their wives, drank, and debated, and danced, and laments the inevitability of passing with whimsy and wonder. He writes of walking and climbing companions lost - one to the savagery of the mountains, the other to the tragedy of AIDS, another to age, and still another to whisky. He writes of climbing, of fishing, of walking; of battles for land-ownership, of geology and of time. Most gloriously he writes of the exultant feelings which overwhelm the mind in wild and lonely places - a sensation which he has most acutely at The Loch of The Green Corrie ("only it's not called that"). Greig calls this, "expansion" - a neat phrase.

This passage follows on from a description of having attended Norman MacCaig's funeral:

And then, he quotes MacCaig himself - 

So economical, so sad, so poignant (so tragically accepting of hopelessness); and so thoroughly rooted in its imagery in things every hillwalker has seen and noted.

While Greig's descriptions of interacting with the wild read like this:

We are human gore-tex! How true, and how pleasantly observed.These few snippets are just a small sample of a few of my favourite pages from this delightful book. Even though I might wish to debate with the author about his conclusions on some matters, this does not dilute the sheer joy of reading delicately insightful writing, expressed through such perfectly crafted sentences. Such is the power of the writing here that even as Greig lamented the passing of a generation of poets, I re-encountered the memories of my lost. As Grieg's wonderful words opened up the landscape I so love, from here in my house, I glimpsed the great landscape of the of Northwest Highlands, felt the wind on my face, smelled the gently burning peat, heard the voices of those no more, and tasted the hot, pepper of Malt Whisky on my tongue. What a pleasure to read someone for whom words are an artform, with such subtle and disarmingly honest and vulnerable insights into our humanity. I will return to this book again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Free Benham Irani!


Lins Honeyman & Friends, Live at The Vine

It was smiles all round at Dunfermline's Vine Church, courtesy of a joyous night of musical entertainment delivered by Lins Honeyman and a cast of his friends. Paul Becher kicked proceedings off with a well-received tribute to James Taylor, before Honeyman and Friends took to the stage after the break.  It was clear from the first bars of their  high-octane rendition of Ray Charles' Unchain My Heart, that the band meant business, and were in great form. Over the next hour and a half they delivered a wonderful set of classic-songs mixed in with a handful of Honeyman's own compositions.

The array of individual musical talent on display on Saturday night was astonishing; surpassed only by what they were able to achieve together as a unit, with some great arrangements to work with. When a deceased person's legacy is trashed we hear them described at "turning in their grave". We need to find a phrase which means the exact opposite of that because I am sure Blind Willie Johnson would have been leaping for joy to hear his "God Don't Never Change" being given a funked groove, and reworked so magically almost a century after his original recording. I also suspect that the famously pugnacious Nina Simone would have been forced to agree that Morna Young's vocal on the Dalziel arrangement of "Feelin' Good", was so good it made the hairs on the back of the hairs on your neck stand up!

The on-stage-line up of the band rotated during the course of the evening as Lins Honeyman exchanged  guitars for keys, Les Dalziel swapped his double bass for his keyboard rig, and a range of different instruments or vocal combinations were deployed for each song. The band roamed easily across genres, covering blues, folk, pop, ballads and traditional songs.

I haven't been to a gig with such a great atmosphere for quite a while, there was a real buzz in the air; something spurred on by the obvious sense that the band were enjoying themselves as much as the audience. It was nice to catch up with quite a few people I haven't seen for a while too. Yvonne Lyon (who I last heard doing a session for "Whispering" Bob Harris on Radio 2), was sitting in front of me too.

In music press of late there has been a lot of discussion about the excessive ticket prices being charged by major rock-acts. Many of these old-rockers are well past their best, and are trading off their achievements of the past, and are playing to vast stadiums with limited views - and charging eye-watering sums for the privilege of being in the audience. Saturday night was as suitable a rebuke to such nonsense as could be conceived: great players at the top of their game, playing in an intimate setting with verve and creativity; and all for £6/a head including refreshments! Local live-music is undoubtedly the way-ahead, but you have to know where to find it!

This band performs under the name "Lins Honeyman & Friends" but by the end of the evening, they were playing to a hall full of people they had won over as their friends.

A few photos of the players (in no coherent order)

Lins Honeyman: Guitars & Ukulele

Jon Assheton: Drums

Les Dalziel: Keyboards

Lins Honeyman: Harmonica

Morna Young: Vocals and sparkly engagement ring

Les Dalziel: Double Bass

Andrew McCully: Guitar

Lins Honeyman: Keyboards

Paul Becher: Support Act

Friday, November 02, 2012

Mount Blair - "Wildenfreude"?

I believe it was the dead-pan comedian Steven Wright who once said, "You know that feeling you get when you lean too far back in your chair - and you think you're going to tip over backwards, but then at the very last minute you don't?....  Well I feel like that all the time". The feeling he describes is one I know well; a stomach-located urgency of adrenaline-surging immediacy, of the pressing of the urgent and significant into the mere leaning-in-a-chair banality of the ordinary. I was thinking about Wright's quote yesterday as I trudged up a little hill in Perthshire called Mount Blair. His quip asks us to imagine the extension of that split-second experience into a state of mind and that, I think, would feel something much like solitary hillwalking in wild places. Does a word exist to describe this all-enlivening sensation? If not, I think one should be invented.

Walking yesterday, I realised that this is actually something I have spent much of my life in pursuit of. As a youngster in London's flat, crowded, suburbs, holidays always meant escape, usually Westwards where we would walk on chalky Dorset hills or watch Atlantic breakers from North Cornish cliffs. Perhaps that wonderful,  - and as yet unnamed - feeling was enhanced by its formative childhood associations with holidays, and family times, and exploration; but yet it remains an experience which creates a longing for more of it. In our house we often have discussions about whether the things we desire are rightly classified as genuine "needs" or merely superfluous "wants". With fixed budgets, an array of choices, and a world of need around us, understanding the difference is hard to do in practice, but is yet important.

It was while I was climbing Southwards, over increasingly crunchy-frozen grasses, into a blinding morning-sun, amid snow-capped peaks, with birds-of-prey circling above me; that everything seemed to come overbearingly alive. The path steepened, my lungs pulled hard, my muscles heating with the strain, and the intensity of existence in this good-made earth overwhelmed. But is satisfying this desire for wild places, rightly to be understood as a "want" or a "need"? After all, to achieve it there is a cost in time, fuel and other work not done. Am I justified in deserting my post of unending drudgery for these moments of glory-soaked trudgery? As I made my way up onto the shoulder of the hill, I disputed with myself about this very question. On one hand, my head tried to insist that this was an unnecessary luxuriating in things I should be able to be quite content without; yet however hard I wanted to impose such thoughts on myself, my heart would have none of it. Instead it sang to the sound of the "thrump" of snow compacting under boots, and then of the "tick-tick-tick-tick - CLANG" of melting icicles dripping from a radio-mast, before dropping off their fragile moorings and percussing the ironwork below. 

"Wildenfreude". I have no idea if this is a word or not. But this is what I shall call that feeling, that sense of wonder, that mystique that arrives in the wild. It can be sensed here on Mount Blair, which of all the places I have been is hardly remote or desolate, in perspective it is really rather tame. Yet for me it is wild enough, far enough, big enough, to feel small, to feel awe-struck, to emotionally teeter on the very edge of the tipping chair; and accept that I need to be here, at least sometimes. Wildenfreude, is how I shall describe this. If you have ever stood in a remote glen, and seen the rising sun through cloud gathering in a corrie, below soaring ridges beneath the bulk of a great mountain and felt something; then you know exactly what this word means. If you have ever stood there and felt nothing, then I suppose I could no more define it for you than I could explain the difference between orange and yellow to a man who has never seen. Realising that my word sounded German (and fearing that German-speaking friends would tell me I had stumbled across something unpleasant or even vulgar!) I looked the words up in a dictionary. It so occurs that my word is made up of two: freude which is obviously pleasure, or joy, which I chose deliberately. Wilden, I intended to relate to the 'wild' of these wild places, but yet it translates as "Savage". Wildenfreude quite literally then is "savage joy".

Savage Joy: The quest for Wildenfreude, is what has brought me here. Wildenfreude is the right word for it too - because what I can see all around me is not 'pretty' in the sense that it is postcard-delicate. Rather it is heart-rendingly beautiful, almost distressingly so, as it presents its beauty to each sense in turn until the brain is bombarded with a tsunami of  joyful stimuli. The Scottish poet and writer Andrew Greig wrote of the experience of being in a wild and desolate place, "there is only so much expansion one can take" - how right he is. Some people might paint, others write, another might even weep at such a sight; I drop my pack and pull out my camera and try and capture the wildenfreude on an SD memory card. I know I can't tame it, or really share it - but sitting at home on a less satisfying day, I can at least remember it. While I am a Christian, I could never be a Gnostic, or accept gnostic-ified versions of my faith. A dualist might want to argue that I should not say that I 'need' to be here amongst the most intense canvasses of the created order; and that a more spiritual approach to contenting oneself with an inner-life with God should be enough. But the biblical narrative makes it plain that this was not God's intention when he made the world and declared it "good". The Gnostic might suggest (quoting the Bible!) that God's grace should "be enough". With all this I agree - but yet want to stress that there is no tension between the grace that creates and which re-creates; between the love that brought us into being and which redeems us. Wildenfreude, is a token of grace: He saw all He had made, and it was very good.

The summit of Mount Blair provides a remarkable panorama, given how easy it is to climb. Lying just south of the high mountains and ski slopes of Glen Shee, its isolation is its finest feature. It's remarkably quiet up there, and when the wind dropped it was absolutely silent for a few minutes.  

There is a standard-line of argument in many church services or sermons (I know, I have on occasion used it myself). It goes like this: the busyness of contemporary life has denied us the space to think about or seek for the spiritual in general, and God in particular. TV is now 24/7, mobile phones accompany us everywhere, ipods plug us into  entertainment wherever we are, so that our poor minds are cluttered with noise, noise which prevents us from hearing anything deeper than its own vibration. Sometimes in church we are encouraged to take a few moments of quiet, to think, reflect, pray, and order our thoughts. In so doing, our minds are given the liberty to breathe; to unknot the tangles of the week. We don't do long silences well in company, as we have become masters of the embarrassment of silence. I wonder if we fear it because we have no social mores with which to negotiate it; or is it that our minds are so knotted with noise that the silence is too raw? A starving man cannot eat steak or drink beer, but must be more gently nourished at first. 

Solitary hill-walking, especially when the air is still; enforces silence. Sometimes in the hills it is so quiet I can hear the disconcerting sound of my own pulse, surging within me, which I am accustomed to filtering out. The silence can be as beautiful as music, it certainly provides a better backdrop to the occasional punctuations of birdsong than the heavy drone of traffic. And yes, in this silence there is time for reflection, for prayer, for thinking and drawing  on that which we know to be most profoundly and deeply true. There is time for God.

But something else took me by surprise yesterday in the great silence of Perthshire: One of the things which is so often noised-out by life, is memory. Now don't hear me wrong, I love noise. Noise in its place is wonderful, indeed as a teenager my bedroom wall was adorned with a large poster of Ian Paice the great rock drummer from bands like Deep Purple. 'Paicey' made a lot of noise, as he still does to this day with immense skill and huge style. I could listen to that kind of noise for hours... But the silence near the summit of Mount Blair, seems to have a profound effect on my memory. Bucket-fulls of long forgotten things emerge surprisingly to the surface when the silence is not interrupted. Memory is a very odd thing indeed. The more I think about it, the stranger I realise it is. My memory is frustratingly random in what it retains and recalls. There are times when I rack my brains to recall something of great importance and come up with nothing; and yet other things (strangely random things) seem large and within easy reach. There seems to be no logic to the process, nor any way in which I can master it and persuade it to co-operate with what I need to know, no matter how urgent.

On my descent of Mount Blair, with the sun on my back, illuminating the great hills to the North, and dipping in and out of a state of wildenfreude, my memory decides to divert my attention to my late-grandparents. It all started with a visual memory of my Grandma's eye. Post-cataracts, my Grandma wore thick glasses which enabled her to see a little of the world, but exaggerated the size of her eyes to those of us looking in from the world. Andrew Grieg, from his tent pitched somewhere in lonely Assynt wrote of memory, "Our lovers, friends, family, the dead are not here, yet they too are with us." I am struck by the thought that not only (if I pause for a moment) can I still hear the distinctive sniff with which my Grandpa used to clear his nose; but that my knees are aching on descent. One of my minor health irritations is painful knees, which protest at going downhill. Walking poles have helped, but still they would far rather ascend all day than be asked to be involved in being the brakes for my weight. The inflammation in my knee grows, and clearly the mechanics of walking are eroding something in there. Yet all the time, my body is fighting back, new cells of various tissue being built as the restoration process counteracts the damage. And every protein of every cell, follows a precise pattern, laid in my DNA, which is one-quarter Eddie, one quarter Olive, a quarter Frank and a quarter Mary. A mixture of cockney, the English shires and Scots.

The door is open now, the memories play like a film projecting too fast: Grandpa's shed, Grandma's knitting needles, Grandpa's piano, Granny's skin, Grandpa's living room, a tray of chocolates, a funny box on the top of the TV, a yellow Austin 1100, a brown Hillman Avenger, a pinecone (a what?: what was that doing there?), a tea caddy, Grandma's sofa, Grandpa's stereo, Grandpa fixing the kitchen tap washer, Grandpa's London accent, Granny's yorkshire puddings, Grandpas hat. Grandma's voice. On and on the memories stream, faster and faster, in random order, un-processable until a gate, a road, and a car - and a return home.

Upon my return I am replenished. It was not a long, or especially arduous walk. But it has done me good. What awaits me is a series of chores, which a day before felt like a burden to carry, but now feel light and untroublesome. The other thing which awaits me are all the normal temptations to do wrong, and to pretend that so doing is acceptable, to allow distorted desires to cripple perspective with self-justification. But merely a morning of being so alive, of walking before God and basking in wildenfreude removes the flimsy allure from much of these. Why settle for the shoddy and the less, when you can live with that feeling you get when you almost tip off the back of the chair, but just at the last second manage to balance yourself? 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Kinnoull Inversion Album

Just a stunning morning on Kinnoull Hill - I couldn't stop taking pictures! Click on an image to browse them at a decent size!

Book Notes: Fibber in the Heat by Miles Jupp

Whether he likes it or not (he doesn't, by the way), to those of us who had children in the late 1990s/early 2000's, "Miles Jupp" will only ever be the new comic character devised by Archie the Inventor of Ballamory fame. "Fibber in the Heat", however has nothing to do with a cast of colourful characters in a Glasgow TV studio pretending to be on the Isle of Mull. Rather it is the highly amusing tale of Jupp's attempt to enter the world of cricket journalism by pretending to be a cricket journalist, and joining England's tour of India under somewhat dubious pretence and highly suspect paperwork.

This is a hugely entertaining book, in which Jupp declares open-season on his own dignity and allows himself the freedom to indulge his whimsical self-deprecation to its full extent. As the story unfolds, you can't help but want the hapless Jupp to succeed, as he bluffs his way past security guards, files his speculative copy to BBCScotland, and manages to sit in the press box, travel with the commentators and meet the sporting stars.

What is also amusing is reading his impressions of, and anecdotes about the well-known cricket commentators and former players with whom he travelled. I was interested to see if they came across in real life as they do on the TV and radio - and to a great extent they did, Atherton was polite but diffident, Gower amiable and pleasant, Boycott loud and abrasive.

The bulk of the book is about the daily struggle to integrate himself into the world of cricket journalism - coupled with funny anecdotes about his attempts to navigate his way around the complexities of India. Rickshaws, conmen, impossible road-crossings, impenetrable bureaucracy, and of course stomach-bugs which erupt within him like Mount Vesuvius. All of this is wrapped around the story of England's Test series against India, during Andrew Flintoff's brief reign as England captain. Despite Jupp's best efforts to derail the cricket journalism element of the book, the reader gets a good feel for the events on the field during that series, every bit as much as the personal dramas going on in the press-box.

This book will appeal to anyone who has appreciated Miles Jupp's various forays onto Radio4, (or anyone who just wonders what Archie the Inventor is up to these days) - although both might be a little surprised at the florid use of expletives, which is a bit much at times. Cricket lovers will enjoy this too, as it is a cricket book like no other, giving an oblique and amusing angle on a much-described subject. Cricket in Britain has developed an idiosyncratic culture around it, in which the goings-on in the various press boxes (such as BBC Radio's Test Match Special) have become intrinsic to many people's enjoyment of the game. Fibber in the Heat gives a hilarious insight into the world of these sports journalists and what happens on tour. Fibber in the Heat is Miles Jupp's invitation for you to join him as he laughs at himself in his madcap cricket adventure.  An invitation well worth accepting!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kinnoull Inversion

Kinnoull Autumn

Another Perth sunset

At the Hermitage, Perthshire

The Falls of Braan, at The Hermitage in Perthshire look especially amazing after heavy rain, when the peaty water foams up, wrestles with the rocks and plunges earthwards. A day out for our family with my sister and baby-niece.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Grenoble Snaps

I have to say, Grenoble isn't my favourite city. It didn't have a huge amount going for it, compared to other French cities we've been to - except the cable car ride from the city centre up to the old walled fortress above the town, and the walks from there along various hills over looking the city. The caves within these hills were worth visiting too.