Quick

So my last post was about how long it took to get a blog published (not on this site, obviously). Just thought I’d ad a quick counter-narrative about a guest blog that got published superfast.

My wife keeps a regular column on the Presbyterian Record website. Notionally, it updates every Monday. Sometimes, that competes with other things, and a couple of weeks ago, we had very dear Canadian friends visiting – Presbyterians, to boot, so when the kids were all in bed and we were having a cool drink around the kitchen table, it was time for her to sigh and start to crowd-source some ideas for the blog. (Or canvas lots of, “No, no, just write it tomorrow” comments; sadly, the Presbyterianness of our visitors meant they cared a lot about what she wrote and thought it would be good to put something up on time and in good order.)

So in my typical offhanded way, I start spouting off things she could write about, and after just a couple of minutes of this, she says, or I say (I can’t remember, and that’s probably what’s good about being married) “Why don’t I just write it? Another guest post – when was the last one I did?” It had been over six months, and that was a Christmas present and something I had already plotted and planned.

Rather than retiring to the upstairs office to write, which is what my wife typically does, I just gassed up the ol’ laptop and started typing right at the table while the other three laughed and told funny stories about when we used to live in the same neighbourhood or cute stories about what our kids do. No more than twenty minutes, it was done, even with me interjecting once or twice in the conversation. She vetted it: it looked fine. Some writing I thought was actually quite clever (my wife noted that this had some similarities in tone to Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, which we had been reading as a bedtime story).

Here’s a sample:

“Were you and Mummy confirmed?”

“Yes,” I say. “I was just a bit older than you are now.”

“Some of the kids who were confirmed today are in the same year of school as me,” she says.

“Hmm.” We pedal a little further on. “Would you like to be confirmed?”

“Well, I’d like to taste the wine,” she replies. Now that’s an honest answer. “But they said the bread tastes like cardboard.”

“No, it’s not like the bread your mummy bakes.”

The whole thing is here.

Primary Socialisation

Religion in Life Certificate

Started young, I did.

My dad sent me this scan of a certificate I got when I was in Cubs. I needed images of me in any Beavers or Cubs kit to go with a blog I was writing for the Messy Table. Seeing it now, there’s an eerie resonance with the MA I took at King’s College London in 2010-11 (Religion in Contemporary Life). Maybe I could be cheeky and call my Master’s degree “II Stage” of the programme. It cost a chunk of change, but there’s a qualitative difference between Zone 1-2 of London and the Cub Camp near Bragg Creek in the Alberta foothills…

Could I have imagined then that I would now be lecturing on religion and the media at a Russell Group university? We don’t know which from among our early experiences will have an impact on our later ones – and maybe, to a degree, we’re complicit in writing that script. That’s a bit of what the blog post is about, musing about a friend who is torn over enrolling his child in Scouting when he doesn’t believe in the God his child would be asked to profess.

Here’s some of what I had to say in the post:

The fellowship my friend wants his child to encounter in the Scouting programme, as well as maybe some groovy skills that include cooking beef, potatoes, and carrots in tin foil on a fire he helped make, is one set of experiences that will shape him. The utterance of belief in God is another, and the way the child is brought up in his home is yet another. The dream of a seamless meld here is a fantasy, because we are ourselves contradictory, before we even get to the contradictions we experience when we meet other people.

You can read the full piece here.

Ultreia

Cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaFor some people, this is the goal. This is what they are walking to. Whether from Saint Jean Pied de Port, their front door, or the Galician town of Sarria, a convenient 106 kilometres from the cathedral and therefore just far enough to “count” as a pilgrimage – from any of these points of origin, this is their destination. To stand in the Plaza del Obradoiro and gaze up at the ornate facade is to stand at the foot of the holy mountain. Only, you don’t climb up, you climb in; it is your eyes, and your heart perhaps, which ascend the peak.

For some, this summit is only a plateau. It is not enough – they feel, as we use the word sometimes, that they have plateaued: reached a height and flattened out, with the unsatisfying feeling lurking inside that greater heights are possible if only they can keep going. They arrive at Compostela and feel that their peregrinations cannot possibly be over. They have reached their ostensible destination, but they keep on walking.

For us, it was neither. We walked into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on 29 October 2005 neither overawed nor underwhelmed. Our Protestant leanings may have had something to do with this: pilgrimage “proper” is one of the traditions the Reformers were wary of, and the piece of paper we received from the official office will not, in our estimation, be of much use in clearing our own or our sinful forebears’ souls from purgatory.

So what was it all for, then? Certainly it was still, as they say, a mountain-top experience. Three mountains stand out for me, and I guess I’ll relate them chronologically. Continue reading

Better Down the Road without that Load

Michael and Maxime in Villar de MazarifeMusic has been a constant fellow-traveller in my life. Last week, I wrote about the music in my head on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which my wife and I walked ten years ago. I did manage to make some music on the outside, too, where other people could hear it. I didn’t bring a guitar with me – I had to carry everything I had for 800 kilometres, so toting a musical instrument would have been foolhardy (but more on that later) – but some of the places we stayed in had a guitar propped against the wall. To pull it down and play was a welcome act.

The most memorable of those nights – indeed, one of our most memorable on the whole journey – was in Villar de Mazarife. We had heard about this albergue by reputation: the Albergue de Jesus sometimes offers the queimada, which is an apparently impressive flaming alcoholic communal drink experience (not this). The account we read made the place out to be a hippy party spot, and I could see how it might become such a place in the right conditions. This guy, describing the queimada at another spot on the route, is of the opinion that those conditions involve several attractive peregrinas. Perhaps he’s on to something: when we hit Villar de Mazarife, it was off-season and getting chilly, and there was nobody in sight as our hospitalero showed us to our bunk room. The room slept eight on military-style metal bunk beds with bare, unadorned mattresses, but we had it to ourselves. The albergue had dorms on four sides facing into a quad, but all was lifeless.

Not all: we went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, and a scruffy, curly-headed, bearded Canadian guy (hey, wait a minute!) was just taking his off the hob. His name was Maxime – a francophone from St. Isidore. He ate his meal whilst we cooked, and we made small, brief conversation. He seemed very internally focused and perhaps uncertain about speaking in English. The kitchen was the only warm room in the place, though, so he hung out, plucking the guitar from the corner and strumming softly as we finished our meal. Katie did our washing up, and I gestured for Max to pass the guitar. Continue reading

Buen Camino

Peregrinos on the border from France to SpainMy wife and I are counting everying in tens right now. On Sunday, we ate discounted pain aux raisins outside the Tesco with the kids before walking home with our shopping, and I said, “Hey – ten years ago tomorrow morning, your mum ate a pain aux raisins on a bridge in Bayonne.”

It’s kind of a weird way to talk, and both the mathematics and the significance were not immediately obvious to the kids. But it’s deep enough to be ingrained for Katie and me, because ten years ago today, we walked into a new way of experiencing life. From Bayonne, we had caught the slow Pyrenean train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, from whence we began a month-long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

It was the kind of experience that telescopes so many of the sensations, such that I can know a decade on that I was a jerk (albeit an unwitting one) when I bought the pastry, missing the cue that the clerk at the patisserie was in fact trying to serve someone else first. Boorish American, she might have thought. Me struggling with French was a constant theme on the journey, though so was me gaining competence in Spanish. But the more important language for us was the rhythm of walking, the movement on an elemental scale. Continue reading

Future of UK and Scotland blog: Muslims Debate the IndyRef

I don’t know if this counts as journalism or as “impact-oriented” academic writing (read: popular, or as it’s known in the UK, “completely un-REFable”), but at any rate, I contributed a blog post to an indyref site run by colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh. This is loosely out of the political science department, but it’s big-tent and it comes with support from the ESRC. They’re doing as comprehensive a job as they can of covering discussions leading up to the big referendum on 18 September.

The centre I’m with got wind of a debate targeting Muslim students in Scotland, and we thought this was fascinating enough for our own work but might also plug nicely into theirs. So they’ve posted my reflections, and you can find them here.

More may follow: I was back in Glasgow two days after the discussion in question for a BBC-sponsored discussion of identity and the referendum, and if there’s more to be said on it, I will let you know.

The independence debate began with a recitation from the Qur’an and ended with the chair exhorting the audience to “think of the umma” when deciding how they would vote on 18 September. In almost every other respect, the debate at Strathclyde University on Sunday 9 March was just like any other around Scotland.

Read more here…

Harry Potter and the Gulag Archipalego

This blog post has been edited 4 March 2014. Please see additional note at the bottom. MM

When I was bombarded with analyses of the Lego movie, putting a recent blog post together, I came across one review from what appears to be a libertarian blog or news site called The Federalist. It was a sort of unremarkable commentary—first outlining the argument that the movie was anti-business and then unpicking it, turning the argument on its head so the movie becomes instead a paean to hard work, creativity, and all the enterprising qualities that embody the libertarian ethos. It’s a good trick, and one I think all of us reviewers and commentators like to do. I recall a similar hue and cry over the Muppet movie, so I’m thinking a) movies for kids rely on a convenient stock of easily drawn villainy, and b) big business is an easy and obvious image of villainy, like the severe Russian generals of my own childhood, none of which subverts or submits to the idea that c) the virtues associated with individual triumph can be wrestled into whichever ideology you want them to support. So who cares. Continue reading

A Lively Engagement – Life and Work 09.12.13

Scotland Cemetery - vgm8383

Canongate kirkyard in Edinburgh – photo courtesy of vgm8383 (cc)

In continuing archiving of journalism, here’s a recent piece I did for Life and Work, the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland. The event was early in December; the article appeared online the following week but has this month appeared in the hard copy of the magazine.

“The panel convened at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre, beneath John Knox’s historic house, and history was on Reid’s mind: he disapproved of the institutional churches’ absence from the current debate on independence. Whereas in the past, the Church of Scotland had demonstrated some of its greatest strengths in speaking to matters of the state, it was not ‘feart’, perhaps, but puzzlingly unwilling to declare itself.”