Friday, 24 January 2014

The context of Christmas

One Saturday recently I was reading when I found myself no longer able to understand words and phrases. It was an odd sensation – I’d see a string of characters which I knew was a word, a symbol which would normally instantly deliver meaning to me, but on that occasion it was merely a shape on the page.

A few minutes later, I was reading normally again, but I went to the doctor and was referred to the neurovascular specialist at Raigmore Hospital. He concluded that I’d had what he called a ‘mini-stroke’ – a Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA). Such TIAs are a sign of increased risk of full-blown strokes and heart issues, and so the doctor put me on medication to reduce this risk factor.

This was a very scary experience, which left me with a heightened consciousness of the fragility of life. This may not be a cheerful subject to reflect on the week before Christmas, but I suggest that any genuine Christmas celebration must take into account a context of darkness and pain as well as joy and light.

Following my mini-stroke, there were times when I felt very alone. My wife, family and friends, and NHS staff have been wonderfully loving and supportive – indeed at such times you realise how much you are loved – yet ultimately you are the one with the problem.

The experience left me empathising more deeply with those who suffer physically or mentally – young, dancing spirits constrained by frail bodies – and the many for whom each day is a parched desert of loneliness. This Christmas, may we embrace in love and compassion those who are hurting.

Having been told not to drive for a month, I found myself surprised by a stab of jealousy at those, clearly older than me, whom I saw driving around cheerfully. I wondered if they knew how blessed they were? Sometimes we need to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes to realise our own good fortune.  This Christmas, may we discern the ways in which we have been blessed, and be truly thankful.

And over the last weeks, I’ve been reminded of a lesson I am always learning, but never quite learning. The lesson that I don’t need always to be doing, filling my life with busyness, driven to achieve by some inner neediness. It is more than OK just to be, to love life, to make time for laughter, to have fun. And the message of Christmas is that we are loved by God and secure in God, a divine regard which sets us free to celebrate.

But there’s a question we ask in our darker moments. Do these comforting religious thoughts actually represent anything real? After my TIA, I felt under a shadow. I prayed and called out to God, but I had no sense of God and it seemed that the foundation was swept from under me. What does it mean to talk about Christ being light when you can see only darkness?

I interpreted people’s kindness to me as a whisper of grace, an evidence of God’s concern. But then I wondered if it were merely an expression of human grace.

I heard a sermon about Jesus’ words to one of the men who died with him ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That, said the preacher, can be our daily experience – encounter with God in a spiritual dimension. But is this true, I wondered, or just words? I wanted a God who walks with us through dark places and does not leave us.

Then one day it was as if God were saying ‘You are reaching up, trying to find me. But you are looking in the wrong place. I am here, within you. I am the foundation, the ground of your being. You are secure in me.’

Often, anxiety blinds me to this sense of God as foundation. But I continue to believe. I have always held in a deep way to the principle ‘Don’t doubt in the darkness what you saw in the light.’ And I take my stand in a centuries-old tradition of faith alongside the many millions who believe that in Jesus Christ God walks with us through dark places.

‘Christmas’ is a symbol of that promise – light piercing darkness, God entering history. The symptom of my TIA was seeing a symbol yet not discerning its meaning. In the same way it’s possible to see the symbol of Christmas while remaining blind to its significance.

I believe that the more our eyes are opened to the meaning of Christmas, the more we can truly celebrate. We do not need to pretend for the duration that darkness doesn’t exist, for a light has come among us more powerful than deepest darkness. Happy Christmas!

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 19th December 2013)

Monday, 20 January 2014

A life in letters: Bullying at School

Any bullying I endured at school was mild compared with what many children face; nevertheless at Wishaw High School it caused me, particularly in my earlier years there, significant unhappiness. 

I must have suffered some bullying at Carluke Primary School – I remember my father going in to discuss the issue with my teacher, and trying to train me in basic self-defence, which resulted in my giving him a black eye. I also remember the glorious day (glorious as it felt to me at the time, that is) when, provoked by policeman’s son Alex Lippiatt I engaged him in combat and landed fist after fist on his face, the crowd of kids gathering round shouting ‘Fight!’, ‘Fight!’ until he capitulated. Trembling, but calm, I picked my spectacles off the tarmac. 

I had a nickname at the primary school. It was ‘Bugs Bunny’, given rise to by my slightly prominent central front teeth, and frequently shortened to Bugsy. But this sobriquet was normally applied in a completely friendly way. On Christine Odger’s lips, ‘Rabbit’ (her variant) was close to a term of endearment. 

Those two front teeth also gave rise to the nickname by which I was widely known at Wishaw High School, Tufty, after the cheerful squirrel featuring in the road safety promotion after whom thousands of ‘Tufty Clubs’ across the country were named. It was rather disquieting that in my first week at the school I was assigned about seven nicknames by different groups of kids, until by some unfathomable process ‘Tufty’ was universally adopted. It was disconcerting that I was apparently so eminently nicknameable. 

I found my identification with Tufty a difficult burden to bear. At the time I hated Tufty, although I now bear him no ill-will. It seemed the whole school knew that I was Tufty and every time a group of kids passed me someone would shout, sneeringly ‘Can I join the Tufty Club?’  Safe in the thoughtless security of the pack, they mocked this ‘different’ kid. 

There was no physical abuse, however, although I remember the indignity of that trick some boys would play: coming up behind you on the stairs, and grabbing at each side your blazer and beneath it your shirt and wrenching both upwards so that shirt was pulled out of trousers. I found this maddening and humiliating, but I didn’t show it.

‘Ask your father what Durex is,’ the boys said mockingly. Did they really think I was so na├»ve? And yet I cultivated an appearance of naivety as a defence. ‘It’s a kind of paint, isn’t it?’ I replied, innocently.

A life in letters: Bairds

A department store in Wishaw Main Street where I used to go for lunch during much of my time at Wishaw High School, a fugitive from the school canteen which I found intimidating.

It was also the venue for my grandparnets' 50th wedding anniversary in 1968 by arrangement with one of the directors, whom my grandfather knew through their mutual involvement in the local branch of the Christian organisation Gideons International. I remember the sense of security and exclusivity that night: we parked on the delivery ramp at the back of the store, and enter by the service bay. The public had become private.

Each lunchtime, I’d walk round from the school to Bairds, and take the lift to the second floor, after pausing beside the rotating stand of Music for Pleasure and Classics for Pleasure records, a label creatively marketed by Paul Hamlyn through non-traditional outlets. I owe him a debt – these records added significantly to my familiarity with classical music. I remember taking home Holst’s Planets Suite from Bairds, and listening to it for the very first time.

I’d sit in the quiet restaurant, alone at one of the tables, and a waitress would serve me. I remember at one point the three waitresses were named after consecutive months of the year – April, May and June. I sensed they thought it rather presumptious for a teenager to be there for lunch on a daily basis. Once, I sent back my glass of tomato juice because I was dubious about the rash of bubbles in it which caused much rolling of eyes. You got three courses for something like 4s 0d, four times the price of a school meal. I often finished my lunch with arctic roll, which I until going to Bairds I had never come across before – a pleasant culinary surprise.

I’d pay at the cash desk, and head downstairs. I remember finding it hard to walk past one of the displays of clothing outside the restaurant. I found the grey pleated school skirts in the ‘back to school’ promotion alluring in a way I couldn’t quite articulate.

A life in letters: School Friends

Although I was always shy, I don’t recall having too much difficulty in making friends at primary school. As far as I remember I was perfectly relaxed around Douglas Anderson at Westerton, and when I was at Carluke Primary I played in an unselfconscious way with the kids who lived near me in Douglas Street, who were a little younger than me in years, but perhaps a little older in maturity – Jennifer Muncie, Linda Whiteside and the cousins Norman and Leslie Steel on whose drive I spent, it seems, many long summer days driving Dinky cars with appropriate sounds effects round the long track we bulldozed through the gravel each morning.

I remember a bunch of us local kids taking off one sunny afternoon for a walk with Jennifer’s grandad – down the lane from Clyde Street to Station Road, long since built over, under the echoing railway bridge, down the hill and across Jock’s Burn and then up the path to the right and into the countryside bordering on the golf course – hours of carefree joy.

The people in my class I spent most time with were Colin Menzies (who pronounced his surname in the Scots way, ‘Mingus’, and became rather cross at the teacher who persisted in calling him ‘Meengeez’) and Paul Birrell. There’s a picture of Colin and me on a day trip to Troon with my parents, sitting on the Ballast Bank.  Paul lived with his mum and two sisters in an upstairs flat in Clyde Street, and I frequently walked home with him. I still remember the relish with which he recited a schoolboyishly disgusting poem about ‘Tarzan in the jungle, sitting on a gate, Bursting for the toilet…’ (there then followed a noise, as revolting as Paul could manufacture by screwing up his lips and exhaling, to denote an unrestrainable evacuation before the third line reached its melancholy conclusion.) ‘Too late!’

Paul and I spent a great of time constructing things in Lego, and then destroying them in epic military conflicts, which Paul’s mum Mildred found rather distasteful.  We did however agree that if we were every conscripted we would endeavour to join the Royal Engineers so that we would not be directly involved in killing people.

Somehow, after I progressed to Wishaw High School, I grew more conscious of being (or simply imagined I was) ‘different’ and this impeded friendships. (Paul went to Dalziel High.) But I felt at home with my class, and indeed with my year group, although many of them are little more than names to me now. One lad, I think a year beneath me, somehow greatly impressed. His name was Gavin White, and he came from Allanton. Though I don’t recall long conversations with him, I felt there was something outstanding about Gavin – a solidity, an integrity. I also remember how affected we were by the death in 1969 of a girl in our class, Mary Leach, who had struggled into class even when she was clearly very ill with cancer. We attended her funeral at Daldowie Crematorium.

During my time at Wishaw High, I was probably closest to Campbell Armstrong who befriended me in 1A2 – I remember one lunchtime he took me with him on a return visit he was paying to his former Primary School, and introduced me to the head teacher. Campbell was a persistent befriender – I have often thought that he was a better friend to me than I was to him – and we have remained in touch – I was his best man in 1977. I remember typing up for him a histrionic drama he composed in his execrable handwriting, I think on a historical theme – and I also remember him conducting a sadistic experiment during a junior school history lesson, grabbing my fingers and pulling them in opposite directions as violently as he could.

Along with James McGonigle who came to Wishaw High in our fourth year we formed a trio, sharing an interest in history, and visiting one another’s houses to listen to music. These musical sessions continued after our school years. I remember hearing Evita for the first time at Jim’s house, when it had been released on disc prior to being staged. ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina!’  And I remember sharing a recording of Mahler's 2nd Symphony, the epic Resurrection with the others. I was gratified that Jim and Campbell found it as overwhelmingly powerful as I did. As a musical dessert, to bring us down to earth gradually I followed it up with Elgar’s sweet Introduction and Allegro for Strings.

Music was the initial link with another friend, George Cringles, with whom I felt more at home than with most people at school because we shared a common Christian milieu. I remember standing in one of the open courtyards in the school one autumn lunchtime waiting for the bell to ring. I’d been out to Bairds for lunch as usual, and had bought a new Music for Pleasure record on which the pianist known professionally as simply ‘Solomon’ (Solomon Cutner) performed the first two Beethoven piano concertos. And there I stood, clutching this LP to my side, displaying the cover as if it were some badge of honour.

A lad I didn’t recognise approached me and nodded at the record sleeve. ‘Beethoven!’ he said, and we got talking. George had originally attended a Junior Secondary School before progressing to Wishaw High. He lived in Waterloo, near Overtown, but we had mutual friends in Carluke where he occasionally played the organ at St Andrews Church. We became friends. George would invite me to join him at the Church when he was practising the organ, and sometimes let me have a go myself, although I could never co-ordinate feet and hands sufficiently well to conquer the pedal parts. Occasionally, when he’d been invited to play at a wedding and wasn’t available on the date in question, George very trustingly asked if I felt up to deputising for him and earning the fee involved, but I never quite had the confidence. Given my limited keyboard competence I was wise to decline.

I used to visit George’s home, meet his family and their frisky Alsatian dog, eat pancakes and strawberry jam, and listen to recordings of thunderingly spine-tingling performances played on historic organs. I have kept in touch with George too. On leaving school he first worked for Halfords before being called to the Church of Scotland ministry serving at Alness, Dunblane and then with a group of churches in Argyll based at St Oran’s at Connel.

I was, of course, attracted to some of the girls in my year group – May and Yvonne, and especially Lesley, the girl who sat across the aisle from me in history, Lesley, the girl with the long auburn hair which she brushed aside with a deliberate movement before continuing to fill the page of her jotter with her neat writing in blue fountain-pen ink. I switched to using a similar script in my own writing in tribute and have never written in joined-up letters since. One February, I found out Lesley’s address and sent her an anonymous Valentine card, dropping it into the post-box outside the flats in the Main Street after heart-thumping moments of hesitation. Lesley must have guessed its origin, for a day or two later I received a similarly anonymous card with a verse on it beginning ‘don’t make love in a cornfield’, which confused and embarrassed me.

I made no move, and didn’t try to connect with Lesley. I knew that in my church and family context any relationship with a girl who was out-with the evangelical fold (as I assumed without really knowing that Lesley was) would not be countenanced. To go against that was, for me, unthinkable. I embraced this orthodoxy unquestioningly and even had I wished to break free, I lacked both the confidence and the inner resource to do so. And so at that stage I was unable to form any kind of deep friendship with these girls whom I longed for from a distance.

Some of my year group took themselves off to the Scottish National Orchestra Prom concert at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on evening in June 1970? Why did I not go too? They’d been promming, and there was lots of space in the prom area, and so Lesley and a boy, one of my friends, had sat in shirt sleeves, leaning back to back, supporting one another as they were immersed in the music. When I heard this, I felt a deep, melancholy yearning.

There was another girl though, Linda, who was several years younger than me. She travelled every day in the bus to Wishaw High School from Carluke with her older sister Marion and their brother Arthur who was ahead of me in the school. I liked the three of them, but somehow as we walked along Kenilworth Avenue and down the long path past the playing fields to the school, it was always Linda I walked with, chatting freely with her. I’m not sure whether I am romanticising this in looking back,  but in retrospect it seems that there was a closeness, a special quality in our friendship which I am grateful for now, and wish I had recognised at the time.

And then there was the girl whose arrival at the bus stop I waited for with keen anticipation. So much so that once on my way home from a concert the 6th year had been involved with in Motherwell I broke my journey at Wishaw just so that I could be standing there in the queue when she came. This girl’s arrival brought a joy I’d never known before, and I longed for her, and yet at the time I remained silent.

As an introvert, I never found friendship easy, particularly as a young man; as someone at times lacking in self-worth I found it difficult to believe that I had anything to offer in a friendship; as someone immersed in a particular Christian tradition I found it challenging to relate to people with different backgrounds.

I am grateful for the acceptance of me of my year group, and for the persistent friendship initiatives of people like Campbell and Jim and George. I wish I had been more open to friendship while at school, but the truth is that I was simply not comfortable enough in my own skin to feel really at home, to be really ‘me’, to accept myself and thus be able to embrace the acceptance of others.