Sunday 13 February 2011

Patience is a virtue

Last week I had to explain Douglas Dunn’s metaphor about the beauty of life being ‘the film that always comes out blank’ to the majority of a group of GCSE students. Coincidentally, the next day the process of ideas emerging during writing was described to me using the simile of an image slowly appearing in a developing tray.

Although there are people who continue to use film cameras – I also learnt a couple of weeks ago that the manual developing process is still taught on photography degree courses – this is another area of people’s lives that technology has radically altered over the past decade.

In today’s world of digital photography, when we take a picture the first thing we do is to squint at the small LCD display on the back of the camera to see if it has come out successfully. If not, we can remedy the situation immediately but if it has, the picture is easily transferred to another medium (often Facebook or Flickr) for general consumption or possibly printed when we return home or next pop to the supermarket.

These instant results are far removed from the physical process of loading a film into a camera, taking 24 or 36 pictures that all count (and squeezing a couple of extra frames in if you were lucky), removing the film from the camera while ensuring it is not exposed to light, sending it away to be developed, and waiting a few days before the arrival of a package of prints in the post. If a new film was loaded towards the end of a holiday, it could be months before the film was finished and developed and then when the pictures arrived on the doorstep they had the power to transport the photographer back to another place and another time.

The delay in seeing the ultimate prints was often tantalising: even at photo labs which offered an hour’s premium service there was still the nail-biting sixty minutes wondering whether any of the shots would be any good. Now we know immediately.

The immediacy in seeing results is both a benefit and downside of technology. Many people are now wholly ‘connected’ so that they can receive and deal with e-mails on the go (accepting we are well past the stage when it was unusual to be able to speak to people away from a landline telephone). As a result of this, senders expect a faster response to e-mails but it is noticeable that people rarely demand the faster responses: it has simply become an expectation.

People now expect things to happen instantaneously; the idea of waiting for something is becoming outmoded. However, there are still reminders of the virtue of patience: buds are beginning to appear on daffodil shoots, and Lent is shortly to make us wait for Easter, but they are things we have to look for and often only find in the natural world. Unless opportunities to wait are searched out and embraced, it is easy to lose the space in our lives for reflection, for ourselves, and for each other in our hurry to show our holiday snaps to the world.

Sunday 6 February 2011

‘I am wiser than the aged’

I have spent what feels like much of the weekend as part of Lichfield Cathedral’s fund-raising ‘Psalmathon’ which involved the five choirs associated with the Cathedral singing all 150 psalms between Friday and Saturday evenings.

Apart from confirming that any event with the suffix ‘-athon’ is nothing but exhausting, it has introduced me to something new in a familiar setting. Even as a cathedral musician for the past 26 years, I only know about half of the book of psalms: the psalms assigned to each day’s evening worship are old friends, but the morning psalms are the newcomer that everyone regards warily. Discovering the unfamiliar in a familiar context has, for the second time in the past year, caused me to reflect on the impact of psalms on my life.

As a boy chorister, the daily round of psalm singing was part of the job and the strange language and ideas were simply accepted. While the gamut of emotions and events portrayed in the psalms is difficult for a pre-teen to grasp, details did stick out: who were Oreb, Zeb, Zeba and Salmana that princes should aspire to be like? What did God do to the Madianites, Sisera and Jabin at the brook of Kison? Why did the Philistines join Gebal, Ammon, Amalek and Assur at Tyre to help the children of Lot? And all these are just from psalm 83. Many of the names of the people and places are fantastical and would not sound out of place in the worlds of JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling; indeed, the same psalm also includes the Edomites, Ismaelites, Moabites and Hagarenes.
As well as providing a rich seam of people and places there is also the inevitable poetry of the psalms. As an adult this is more apparent, but there are images I remember from childhood readings and psalm 55 is one of my clearest memories:
The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart:
His words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords. 
Even as a youngster, the dichotomy between what one says and does was familiar to me and the simple metaphors make a clear image. Although I can now identify and comment on the poetic devices in the texts, I was certainly aware of some of the meanings and imagery when I was younger.

Having sung psalms on a daily basis, I have never shirked away from attempting to read English texts. My students shy away from Shakespeare because the language is ‘difficult’ – some even object to the ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and words ending in ‘-eth’ – but, having been brought up with the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, these have always sat comfortably with me.

There is an absolute maximum of seven hundred child choristers in England in any academic year. Through their singing of the psalms they are – unwittingly, like me – having worlds opened up to them to which many children just do not have access. The regular repetition of poetry, some dating back three thousand years, must influence the linguistic development (and possibly even subconscious ability to appreciate poetry) positively and the psalms could, perhaps, in their own small way be admired as a rare, but precious, gem in the crown of children’s literature.