These Are What We’d Call ‘The Basics’

In February, when I was sitting on my hotel balcony in Madeira, my phone pinged with an email from Oriel, the system that coordinates recruitment to NHS training programmes. I had unsynced my phone from my work emails, and given them my personal email address, because paranoia is a valid thing. They had received my job application and I would hear in due course whether I’d been shortlisted for interview.

I was. My interview is on Friday.

Increasingly nauseated, and thank you for asking.

The email had admonished: “Most candidates prepare properly for interview. Please make sure that you are one of them.” 

It turns out that interview preparation is to get gems like this out of the way with before accidentally saying them out loud when it counts.

The scene is Nandos, on a Monday night.

We have not yet been interrupted by a man who has read the title of my book and wants to quiz me on the future of the NHS under a Conservative government, so in that sense we’re one up on the last time we tried to do interview prep in this Nandos.

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Friend: You are the medical registrar. You have been fast paged to a surgical ward. On arrival, you are told by a nurse that the patient is two days post-op and has been found unresponsive. Go.

Me: I would ask the nurse to put out a 2222 call if one hasn’t been already, and to come back with the arrest trolley.

Friend: Yes.

Me: I would conduct an A to E assessment —

Friend: The patient is unresponsive on the floor, what would be the first thing you would check for?

Me: I would conduct an A to E assessment, so I would start with A and check whether their airway was patent.

Friend: What would be the first thing you would check for?

Me: *flustered* I am conducting an A to E assessment.

Friend: They are unresponsive on the floor.

Me: Well, I — oh, shit, I WOULD CHECK THAT THEY WERE ALIVE.

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Er, please give me a job?

Marriage, Rainbow Feather Boas,  and Hands of Friendship

It is Lent. For those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church, part of our penitence is to attend our Diocesan Synods.

The United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway met today in Dumfries, and on our agenda was a debate on whether to approve proposed changes to Canon 31. If you haven’t been paying attention, these are the changes that would allow those members of the clergy who wish to do so to celebrate marriages between same sex couples while also protecting the consciences of any member of the clergy who does not wish they celebrate any marriage for any reason. There are debates in all seven dioceses this month, and the outcomes will doubtless inform the debate when General Synod meets again in June for its definitive vote.

The Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway approved the proposals today with a 64% majority, voting as one House.

This is what I said to Diocesan Synod:

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I would like to express my gratitude to both the Committee on Canons for their work in putting the proposed Canon together, and to the last two years of General Synods for the work they have done on it so far.

I want to be part of a Church that is for everyone.

I believe that the majority of people in the Scottish Episcopal Church want that too.

The thing I remember most about the process that we’ve gone through to get here is the day at General Synod in 2015 when we were first asked what it was that we wanted to say about marriage. We were given various options. On the one hand, we might have chosen to say something about marriage that was in many ways even more rigid than the current Canon 31, that would have left people who have broader ideas about marriage very much on the outside. I remember there being not much appetite for that. On the other hand, we might have chosen to explicitly define marriage as something that can be between two people of any gender. And I remember there being not much appetite for that, either. I remember that the overwhelming mood in Edinburgh that day was a real want to find some middle ground, to not only accept but celebrate the fact that ours is a Church where there are lots of different opinions and that that is one of the things that makes us a little bit wonderful.

I was so proud, that day.

In a lot of ways — and this isn’t what most of you will expect me to say — I think I was prouder than I would have been even if the whole of Synod had got out the rainbow feather boas and broken into a chorus of I Am What I Am.

The proposal for amending Canon 31 is a result of the decisions we made — decisions to be truthful about who we are and to go forward in a way that we can, I think, all live with.This process does not lead us to something that will end with winners and losers, but the hands of friendship extended and an outcome that will be better because we did it for everyone and we did it together. 

Honest to God, this is what “good disagreement” should look like. We can be a model for good disagreement and mutual love for our sister provinces throughout the Anglican Communion.

Now, yes, I do look forward to the day when same-sex couples can walk down the aisle in my cathedral and be joined together in marriage. Of course I do.

But I want this to be a Church that is for everyone, and I believe that the proposed Canon is something that will allow us to be that Church. 

The Bishops’ Report: Working Against LGBT Equality In The Church of England

There are days when turning on the news or opening Twitter induces a kind of writer’s paralysis. The last 48 hours have been something like that. It’s not that I can think of nothing to say; if anything, it’s that I’ve got too much to say. The atrocities and oppressions that I can see rolling out across the Western world are so much, it’s difficult to know where to begin. And if I talk about the House of Bishops in the Church of England, will it read as if I’m ignorant of or indifferent to the troubling things that are happening both on the far side of the Atlantic and in Whitehall?

I am going to talk about the Church of England.

On Friday, the House of Bishops released their report on same-sex marriages following on from the Shared Conversation process that has taken place in the Church of England over the last two years. This came from the work of the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality, and then a facilitated meeting of the whole House of Bishops. Their work has produced a document that I do not find particularly helpful, and I do not particularly discern the hand of God or the Holy Spirit at work within it.

In summary, the House of Bishops has no intention of allowing the Church to explore any possibility of change to its marriage doctrine, nor to Canon Law, but it thinks it is important that the Church is seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren than it is at present. The sticking point is that the suggestions for the ways in which the Church might bring itself to be seen as being nicer to its LGBT brethren do not include actually being nicer to us, as the report accords us neither equality of status nor recognition nor the right to be spoken about in language that doesn’t stink of insidious homophobia.

It is, then, difficult and draining reading, but I do recommend reading it all anyway.

My heart breaks today for my LGBT sisters and brothers in England and their allies who trusted and hoped in the process of the Shared Conversations. I am disappointed for them, but I must confess that I am not in the least surprised.

We had our own version of shared conversations in Scotland in 2014. They were called the Cascade Conversations. I have been heard to say that I thought the Cascade Conversations in Scotland were a dangerous and abusive process, and I was horrified when the group that planned them went around telling other Provinces that it had been wonderful. I never had the expectation that it would lead to good things — and looking at where the Scottish Episcopal Church is now, I still don’t believe that I was wrong. I am prepared to acknowledge that on an individual basis there were some people whose experience was different to mine and who found the process helpful, and I am certain that the same is true in England. I have, for whatever it’s worth, and I am certain that the same will also be true in England, not found that those people have been prepared to acknowledge that for some of us the process was frankly damaging. But it is my view that largely the good things that have happened in furthering the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church since the Cascade Conversations have been in spite of that process, rather than because of it. The people who were most critical of the process persistently made it clear — privately, publicly, and through Synodical processes — that we did not trust it and that there would be consequences for the Church if it were used as a delaying tactic. We are now in the middle of a process that we hope will advance the cause of equality in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and that is a process of which I have been very proud. The situation in our sister province in England is plainly now much bleaker.

The question is raised as to why these things are still important, right now. There are other injustices in the world, injustices that are being celebrated on the front page of the newspapers, and those things seem objectively to be bigger than this thing, and certainly more imperative.

And it’s not a stupid question.

But the answer is that this is important because they are all part of the same thing.

I gave a speech to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church eight months ago, and in it I called on us as a Church to play our part in dismantling systems that have kept the oppressed oppressed.

I was criticised for that line: I was accused of crying “homophobia”, and told that it wasn’t fair to claim that people who were anti-LGBT equality were furthering the cause of the oppressor, and I stand by it anyway.

This latest from the Church of England is about more than who can walk down an aisle hand in hand with their beloved. It is about an abusive policy in an organisation that is charged with the care and education of thousands of children. It is about allowing an organisation that chooses an anti-equality agenda to continue to claim charitable. It is about formally endorsing the idea that this particular employer can behave abusively in how its employees are treated and will be treated in the future.

The anti-equality agenda of the House of Bishops and the anti-equality agenda of the President of the United States are all part of the same thing. It doesn’t matter: it’s about marriage, it’s about gender equality, it’s about allowing scientists to report science, it’s about interfaith relations, it’s about who we welcome across our borders and into whose face we allow our governments to slam the door. These things are all part of tearing down the world of freedom and inclusivity and justice that so many of us and so many who went before us worked so hard to build.

In the world we live in now, you can be for equality or you can be against it, and you can help me fight for the forces of freedom and inclusivity and justice in the world, or you can get out of my way. It is time for all of us to choose which side we are on.

Epiphany, The Qu’ran, and The Cathedral

As regular readers are aware, I am a member of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow. I am a server at the altar of the Lord in that church, and I am elected as lay representative of the congregation.

St Mary’s Cathedral is no stranger to conflict, and no stranger to calling out injustice where we see it or causing trouble where we see that it is needed. We proclaim ourselves to be open, inclusive, and welcoming — and proud.

It is fair to say that I did not see the events of the last week coming.

Last Friday, I was at the Epiphany service that has been widely misreported largely by segments of the right wing media. I was there as we celebrated the birth of Jesus and the incarnation of the Word of God, and as we received the body and blood of Christ, and as we proclaimed the Gospel of the Lord. It filled me with great joy to send clouds of sweet smelling incense up to heaven in praise of the babe born in Bethlehem. I was there when one of our Muslim sisters in God sang for us the story of Mary and Jesus as it exists in the Islamic tradition of the Qu’ran. In our cathedral church which we dedicate to her, it means a great deal to us to know that throughout the world people from all kinds of traditions are singing songs to honour Mary.

I have been astonished at the subsequent furore, and at the vitriol and intolerance that has been unleashed on St Mary’s in response to our Epiphany service.

As Christians who consider ourselves called to the practice of neighbourly love and radical hospitality, this is quite simply what we do and we view that as thoroughly unremarkable.

I confess that I am uncertain what the “Christians” whose response to this has been hate mail and threats thought they were being called to. Theirs is not a form of Christianity that I recognise.

When I attended our Eucharist this morning, I took messages of love and goodwill that had been passed to me from all over Glasgow and beyond. From friends who worship in the Baptist tradition, and the Greek Orthodox tradition, and the Roman Catholic tradition. From friends who are Muslim. From friends who have no religious tradition at all but who see the work we do at St Mary’s and think that it is a good thing. From fellow Anglicans and Episcopalians too.

This week has been a difficult one, but here we still are and our business goes on as usual; our business of proclaiming to Glasgow and to all the Earth the Gospel truth that God is love, God is love, God is love.

Welcome to Glasgow – Ten Years On

It had been a good conversation. We had had a good rapport. We talked about what he liked about where he worked, about the book we were both reading and our mutual love of Sebastian Faulks, and about my microbiology research and what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up.

At the end, we shook hands and said how nice it had been to meet each other and then it was time for me to venture back into the dark cold evening in a strange city.

“Have a safe trip home,” he said. “Are you driving back to Geordieland tonight?”

I paused in the act of gathering up my things. “I’m on the train and I had a sodding disaster of a journey to get here, so heaven knows what it’s going to be like getting back,” I said.

A couple of hours earlier, I had been disgorged from the Edinburgh to Glasgow train onto the platform at Queen Street. My journey to Scotland had been delayed by a tree on the line outside of Kings Cross, leading to an hour of pacing back and forth beneath the departure boards at Newcastle Central Station. On a train, finally, I made a flurry of phone calls, making frantic promises that I was still planning to be there that afternoon. Just north of the border, an announcement was made over the PA that due to unforeseen technical difficulties, which I would later discover was a felled power cable in the Central Belt, the train, which had been scheduled to take me direct to Glasgow Central, would terminate in Edinburgh. Edinburgh Waverley is a labyrinthine behemoth of a train station and I’d only been in it a couple of times, and always for a leisurely stroll to the Playhouse. As we pulled in, I was first off and barrelled past the crowds of people swarming around the station on the mid-January afternoon, squeaked apologies and little old ladies flying every which way. I made it onto a train to Glasgow with less than thirty seconds to spare.

I blurted this story out. The filter between my brain and my mouth was plainly lying scattered in pieces somewhere along the tracks of the East Coast main line.

“Oh,” said the man who had been interviewing me for a place at medical school. “Well, good luck.”

That was ten years ago this week.

I am still occasionally asked why I chose a medical school in Scotland. There were 25 medical schools in England during the application cycle in 2006-2007, after all. My usual answer is that I was running out of places to apply to, which people take as either a joke or as a sign that they’ve committed a social faux pas on a par with starting up a dinner conversation about how much they liked the Twilight series.

I applied to medical school for the first time in 2002, when I was in sixth form. In the UK, the maximum number of medical school applications that could be made in one cycle at that time was four. I applied for the second time in 2005, at the beginning of the final year of my BSc. My third application was going to be in the autumn of 2006, when I was in possession of an honours degree, my old room in my parents’ house, and a customer service job in the public transport industry that I hated. It doesn’t take Alan Turing to realise that by the time I whittled down medical schools to places I hadn’t already been rejected by, places who accepted graduates, places whose graduate admission criteria didn’t include A-level requirements that I didn’t meet, and places that didn’t require me to live in either Keele or Hull, the list was getting quite short. “What about Scotland?” asked someone, and the rest is basically history.

That first day, I saw the medical school, the fence surrounding the ancient university buildings, Queen Street station (twice), and a bit of Sauchiehall Street out of a steamed up bus window. And when I say that I saw them, I didn’t arrive until half past three in the afternoon and it was January 11th, so I didn’t really see them. And then I got on a train back to Newcastle.

I already had another interview booked. It was for a four, not five, year degree; a graduate entry programme with all but the first year of tuition fees and a good chunk of living expenses funded by the NHS. I had two good friends already at the university. It was not in a city that consistently feels like the rainiest place on Earth. On paper, it was perfect.

I returned to England and spent the next two days going quietly crazy. On the third day, I called my mum on my lunch break at work. “I know this isn’t logical,” I said. “I know that it’s an extra year and it’s more debt and I don’t think I care. I’ll go to Warwick for my interview, of course, but if Glasgow offer me a place then I’m moving to Glasgow.”

Now, it is the case that if a person wants you at their university even after you conclude the interview by reciting a monologue on the black hole of twenty-first century rail travel, the laws of good karma and good British politeness do dictate that you probably ought not to turn them down. It wasn’t that, though. Anyway, they hadn’t offered me a place yet. In retrospect, it was a bold thing, and not in a sensible way, to start making plans for what I’d do if I was made not one but two offers. It would have been bold for anyone, but for a person who before this had been rejected by nine medical schools across what was by then three application cycles and who had concluded that interview in that way, it bordered on foolish.

It was, however, exactly what ended up happening, and eight months later, just like I’d said, I packed all my worldly possessions into a Transit van and moved here and I’ve never left.

It has been a decade since I first fell off a train into the arms of this place that I knew nothing about.

Bold. Foolish. Rash.

Maybe.

In that decade I’ve not had a single regret.

I can’t explain any better now than I could have then what it was that happened that day — something that tugged hard on my instincts, that paired me to this glorious city and told me that we were for each other. How do you explain what home is? I don’t, but I knew it when I saw it.

Take AIM

Just before Christmas, I spent a weekend down in Bristol at Take AIM, a conference aimed at junior trainees who have an interest in acute medicine.

The second year of core medical training is notable for a sharp uptick in the number of times per week a person is asked if they’ve had any thoughts as to the specialty training they might consider. I tell them that I’m applying to ST3 in Acute Medicine, and they’re startled — either by my questionable life choices or my level of decisiveness, I’m never quite sure.

“Oh, and — really?” asked my most recent clinical supervisor. “Do you think I could get you to change your mind?”

I should be clear, my choice of medical speciality is hardly the first time I’ve had a questioning eyebrow raised at my life choices. My life choices have, after all, led to me sitting on the M74 on my day off looking for exit signs to Lesmahagow with my only provisions being a boot full of wedding paraphernalia, and being in the back of a Jeep reversing backwards around the corner of the shelf of the Ngorogoro Crater while the part of my brain not occupied with screaming asked if this was really how it was all going to end, and nearly getting arrested in the middle of Tianenmen Square. And those things all turned out brilliantly. So.

The raised eyebrows can be flattering, in their way, if their purpose is to persuade me out of my specialty and into theirs, which is sometimes.

But — unspeakably frustrating in another way.

At this point in CT2, some people haven’t made up their minds, which is fine: that’s why staff grade posts and taking time off from training are good things to do. I have, though. I had my time off from training, remember, and I needed an Archimedean epiphany fuelled by sleep deprivation and adrenaline, but I’m done. I’m sure. I’m not a foundation trainee who ought to be prudently murmuring about keeping her options open. I’m in, and with my eyes wide open. If my mind wasn’t changed by perpetual backshifts in a hospital that was literally closing down around me and where we occasionally had to see patients in the cupboard for lack of bed space, it is unlikely to be changed by the prospect of thirty years as an oncologist.

I know when I was ten that I thought that a doctor was a doctor and it was all basically the same thing, but it’s not like that’s actually true.

Yes, isn’t it nice that we don’t have to all be the same thing?, I want sometimes to say.

I’ll be honest, mind: I understand in my brain why my particular thing isn’t for everyone. In my heart, I don’t really understand why anyone would ever do anything else.

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Heart and Brain: TheAwkwardYeti.com

The frustration of being a core medical trainee is that it feels — and is — a terribly peripatetic existence. I don’t yet have my tribe, or whatever the collective noun for my specialty colleagues would be. An insanity of acute physicians, perhaps. I still don’t have that, five years in. My experience is that nor do most CMTs. You sort of have to go looking for it, and therefore my weekend in Bristol was precisely what I needed.

Take AIM was the initiative of registrars training in acute medicine and has the stated intent of promoting what is a still relatively new and rapidly expanding speciality to juniors. It gets funding from Health Education England and support from the Society of Acute Medicine, and it has consultant input, but it’s still principally led and run by senior trainees — which, as someone who isn’t yet but hopes soon to be in specialty training, is a helpful thing for me, to hear from people who are in a position to tell me what the next five years of my life are likely to look like and who are willing to do it in a warts and all kind of a way. My first real contact with them was in October 2015, when I joined in an hour-long discussion on a Sunday evening on Twitter and came away from it feeling that thing you feel when you have found your people and they get you.

Bristol was like that, too, but better.

It had a bit of careers advice in it, and a bit of debunking of the more commonly held myths of acute medicine. Personally, I’m considering getting the sentence No, I’m Not Just Going To Be The Med Reg Forever tattooed across my forehead. It was also very well populated with very lovely trainees who were keen to chat about training and careers between the main sessions.

A lot of the day was education on acute medical topics. The philosophy went something like: “We are going to expect you to engage in acute neurology teaching first thing on a Saturday morning, but we are going to make sure that you are very well caffeinated for it.” That’s basically what I mean when I call them my people.

I would not dare to speak for everyone on this, as training experiences vary across the UK and everyone’s experience of their own training is different anyway, but the topics covered are ones that in my experience are covered badly, not enough, or not at all. To take an example from one of the earlier national conferences, in 2015, a session on “The Pregnant Patient on AMU”. It is not a thing that I’ve ever been taught and yet is a patient demographic that I happen upon all the time. It is incredibly exciting to me to spend a day being taught useful things by people who understand what happens at the front door of the hospital and want to help make it happen better, and that was what that day felt like. The presentations from the Bristol conference are all available online for those of an acute medical inclination, and a Storify, which includes video of a hundred people doing the dermatome dance, still first thing on a Saturday morning, has been put together of the day as told via social media.

It didn’t convince me that I want to be an acute physician; I knew that already. I think it reinforced for me that I’ve made the right decision.

I apply for a job in a month. For those of you who have been on this particualr merry-go-round with me for the last five years: Yes. Again. It’s a bit scary, this time. I remember when I was an FY1 that I definitely thought the registrars were the Proper Grown Ups. If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths with my head between my knees.

We Have Seen His Glory

A lot of the time, my experience of faith is of something that just is. It lives somewhere in my hindbrain, where I keep the things that I take for granted and wouldn’t know how to stop even if I wanted to: like my heartbeat and my dreams.

There are moments, though.

They often come in the moments when I’ve had my mind on a million other things.

I don’t always have what you’d call the most conventional Christmas. This year, my Christmas happened in about three hours on very late Christmas Eve into very early Christmas Day when Midnight Mass fitted between two shifts with tinsel in my hair and a bit of sleep.

And there, in the middle of the Eucharist, that was a moment for me, when I remembered that this thing that I do take for granted is something that I really believe to be really and profoundly true. That the Word became human and lived among us — and everything, everything, that came after it.

That is really quite something, is that.

 

A Travelogue, In Which 81 Scottish Choristers Descend Upon China

It is now just over five weeks since I was on a flight home to Glasgow with eighty members of the City of Glasgow Chorus and our assorted entourage. That was a journey that had started not quite 24 hours earlier in the darkness of three o’clock in the morning in Shanghai, and had started nine days before that when we had boarded a flight bound for Beijing with copies of Vaughan Williams and Brahms and a sense of not quite knowing what we were doing, and had started, really, three years ago in Opole when on the final night of our Polish tour and on a great deal of Polish vodka we had begun to ask, what’s next?

Back on that night in 2013, the answer to that question was Odessa. And then Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukraine, so that was sort of that.

China, then.

The evening after our arrival back in Scotland, I sat in a coffee shop and I typed, “It’s only 24 hours since I landed at Glasgow Airport, and already I’m finding it difficult to believe that we’re home from China, or, more to the point, that we ever went in the first place.” It had been incredible, transcendent, and utterly mad, and it also felt as though it had taken place inside a sort of bubble beyond which the world had stopped existing — helped along, no doubt, by the Chinese firewall around the Internet, which had largely cut us off from the outside world anyway, but in a more metaphysical sense than that, too. In the last month I’ve been delighting in all the pictures and videos coming across my social media feeds, and the conversations that they’ve sparked: proof that this incredible thing was a thing that really happened.

I have been being asked whether I was going to write about China since I was in the queue to clear security at Glasgow Airport on the way there. Yes, I said. Yes, of course I am. It’s taken five weeks because it turns out I had kind of a lot to say.

Nine days. Three cities. Three performances.

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Rachel Johnson wrote in the foreword to the 2014 edition of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady that “no interesting anecdote ever began ‘we had a problem-free journey to Istanbul on the Orient Express'”.

We touched down in Beijing at half past ten in the evening. I wanted a shower, clean clothes, and a horizontal surface, preferably in that order; a wish list that is shared by anyone who has ever been on a long haul flight although I’d suggest mine was intensified just a little by the fact that I had started my period in a 777 toilet somewhere over Afghanistan. The journey had in fact been remarkably unproblematic, and we were all aware that we were expected on a sightseeing tour in less than twelve hours and were beginning to have a collective fantasy about bed.

I speak very little Mandarin. I can say thank you and I can count from one to ten, and, because of the scene that proceeded to unfold once we were on the ground, I can understand the quarantine announcement that is currently made on board aeroplanes arriving in China. The announcement that was made, repeatedly, in English and Mandarin, asking people who are from two countries where neither of those is a particularly commonly spoken language to please make their way to the nearest exit before anyone else is allowed to disembark, while those people sat, presumably baffled as to why no one was getting off the plane. I’m pretty sure we had been the last international flight due into Beijing that night even before we sat on the tarmac for over an hour. I was the second to last person in the queue at international immigration. As myself and my last-in-the-queue colleague stepped forward to hand over our passports, sections of Beijing Airport Immigration were shutting down around us. As the final half dozen of us waited for the shuttle train that would take us to baggage reclaim and the exit, we were joined by what appeared to be the entire staff of Beijing Airport, going home for the night. “It’s not that I think our bags won’t be off yet,” I said, musingly. “It’s more that I think they might have decided no one’s coming for them and stashed them in lost property already.”

Our first concert in China was the very next evening. Or, more accurately, since no one actually got to a bed until 2am, that same evening.

We were performing with the Beijing Sinfonetta and the International Festival Chorus, singing the Ralph Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony. I have an emotional response to the Sea Symphony, which is set to extracts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It has parts in it that, every time, I have something that’s partly sense memory, lying in bed in the dark, listening to the quiet burble of the Shipping Forecast, and partly more than that, conjuring up the images and sounds of men and women bobbing up and down in their boats around the waters of the British Isles. And never mind that Whitman was American; in my head —

… token of all brave captains,
and of all intrepid sailors and mates,
and all that went down doing their duty.

— that’s what I hear: the music, and the waves, and a voice from the BBC saying, “and now the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency … warnings of gales in Tyne and Doggar … Rockall, Mallin, Hebrides, veering northeast 3 or 4 … “

I tell you all this in part so that you will understand why I laughed myself sick when, before leaving Scotland, we saw the promotional material for Beijing.

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And in part so that you will understand why my breath catches, just a little, every time I sing the Sea Symphony.

The honest truth is that I don’t remember a lot about that concert. I remember, while the Sinfonetta were noodling about with the accompaniment during the rehearsal, sitting cross-legged on the stage behind the second sopranos of the International Festival Chorus, and being asked about our journey and them saying it was good, then, that we’d had the chance to rest in the morning, and me corpsing before I told them we’d been up since eight and been taken on a five mile walking tour of the Forbidden City before rehearsal. I remember that I was sitting next to the tenors, because I remember that I got chatting to one of them and asking if it was his first time in Beijing, and he gave me an odd look and said that it was but obviously now he’d lived there for eight years and I was mortified because apparently I can’t tell the difference between my tenors who I’ve sung with for years and tenors who are not my tenors. I was really sleep deprived. And speaking of which, I also remember that at one point in the fourth movement during the performance I started to tilt gently to one side.

Somehow, we managed to get through it without disgracing ourselves in front of our Chinese audience and our illustrious guest conductor, Nick Smith, and from there we had a few days off to explore the city and shake off the jet lag.

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All the times I thought we were going to die in the traffic. Or run over someone else in the traffic. That’s what I’ll remember about Beijing.

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A long time before left Glasgow, we had each one of us been required by the Chinese government to sign a document saying that having been granted permission to perform in China we would agree not to use the stage as a platform for political protest. It is my view that even if one were inclined to launch a political protest from a stage, the middle of a Vaughan Williams choral work would not be the natural place to do so. It is apparently the view of every person who has ever met me that that is all well and good, but, after all, if anyone were going to do it it would probably be me. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t see their point. My relatives had spent the better part of the previous six months telling me not to get arrested.

The day after the concert, I spent a morning exploring Beijing alone, getting enjoyably lost on the subway, and drinking and buying tea in the tea market, and then we all met back up as a group for a tour of Tiananmen Square which seemed an ideal opportunity for a group photo.

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So. Much. Tea.

I joined my fellow short people in the front row and squatted down. A crowd of people began t to gather, wondering what we were up to. I took off my sunglasses, rendering myself effectively blind, and looked vaguely in the direction of the camera. “Say ‘Cheese!” called someone. This led to a few minutes of: “Say ‘China’!”, and, “Say ‘Beijing’!” and “Say ‘Away!”. The last a reference to the opening movement of the Vaughan Williams, and then people started trying to sing the Sea Symphony except all different bits, and, eventually, one of the altos struck up Auld Lang Syne and we all joined in.

You really aren’t supposed to sing in Tiananmen Square. It turns out. If you do, they think you’re trying to start a revolution. Historically, revolutions in Tiananmen Square have gone a little less than well.

Because I’d not been wearing glasses, the first inkling I had that something had gone a bit wrong was when we gave it, to coin a phrase, laldy, on the last line of the chorus and stopped and the crowd gathered were silent. You do that on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, people mostly clap. The force of ingrained British politeness means even if they think you’re a bit shit they mostly clap. And when I put my glasses back on, the police had arrived.

I am told by people who could see what was going on that what happened was this: A police van that had been parked at the other end of the Square, nearly a kilometre away, started its engine and drove over to us. The military moved forward. As our photographer lifted his camera, he became aware that there was a soldier or a police officer on either side. Afterwards, our Mandarin speaking tour guide was taken aside by the police who questioned him as to whether our song had been an attempt to incite a revolt.

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It’s not that we go looking for trouble. Really.

If you search for Tiananmen Square on an Internet connection within China, there is no evidence of the events of 1989.

*

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The following day, the coaches took us out to the Great Wall of China.

Travelling, there are moments when my breath catches involuntarily and I murmur, oh. Oh, I’m really here. Oh, I’m really seeing this thing. Oh, wow. The moments that linger in the memory better than any photograph.

We had been warned that the day was misty and that the views from the Wall wouldn’t be at their best.

I got off the coach and rounded the corner from the car park on foot and looked up.

And.

Oh.

That’s something I’ll remember for a long time. 

*

 Nanjing felt noticeably smaller and quieter than Beijing had.

It has a population of 8 million people, to Beijing’s population of 25 million. For reference, the population of Nanjing is still three million more people than live in the whole of Scotland.

First, though, we had had to get there.

On the bullet train.

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Well, how hard can that be?

The trouble is that Chinese public transport is very punctual. Yes, I did say “the trouble is”.

We had boarded the bullet train at its point of origin in Beijing and once underway it stops at each station en route for only two minutes. I’ve mentioned, I think, that the City of Glasgow Chorus was not a small group; ninety-eight of us once you tot up the assorted hangers on, like the spouses and the soloists and the conductor. So, imagine, if you will, the ninety-eight of us when we learned that this did indeed mean that we would have 120 seconds from the doors opening to get all of us and all of our luggage off the train and onto the platform.

I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do regret the fact that I don’t have a video of that one minute and fifty seconds. Oh, yes. And no one accidentally went to Shanghai, even.

At some point in Nanjing, I vanished into the kind of tour bubble that I talked about at the beginning, that I experience as a complete and all-encompassing metaphysical thing. It persisted until a good three or four days after I arrived back in Glasgow, far more disorientating than even the worst jet lag. It isn’t peculiar only to choir tour, although it happened in Poland too – I experience a similar if more short lived kind of thing at General Synod, where this is life now and it is all life is and that’s very okay with me, and emerging back into the real world where people do not care fervently about either obscure points of canon law or Brahms is thoroughly flummoxing. I’ve written in my paper journal in Nanjing, I could do this forever. It is patently not true – I have a real job that I love and a real life that I love and eventually I’d like to be in one place for long enough to unpack a suitcase and wash some socks, but in that moment, in the middle of that all-encompassing experience, I was entirely content with this life. A few days later, I’d sit down for my last breakfast in China and I would think, what on Earth do I do on Monday morning when I don’t have ninety-odd people to eat breakfast with?

However, I digress.

Nanjing.

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From the top of the city walls of Old Nanjing

My recollection is that we hadn’t originally intended to be there at all, and that a concert had been moved from Tianjin to Nanjing for logistical reasons. In fact, our tour guide told us repeatedly that it was unusual for the city to see Western tourists; by implication, let alone for it to see almost a hundred Scots descending on the place en masse. It’s the provincial capital of Jiangsu Province, and in the earlier part of the twentieth century had been the site of central government under the Kuomintang nationalist party until its invasion by the Peoples’ Liberation Army in 1949.
We were there for an extraordinarily short period of time, but managed to see a lot of old Nanjing in the time we had and then walk through the streets of the city near the Confucius Temple where we used our terrible Mandarin to buy street food of uncertain but mostly delicious origin.

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Kittens in the Confucius Temple

It is probably worth my saying at this point that despite spending the better part of an hour in the Confucius Temple, I know nothing about Confucius. As we entered, I spied a cat. I went over to say hello, and found a whole family of kittens who were perfectly friendly if baffled by the presence of an odd woman who kept squeaking at them and taking pictures. In my own defence: I was starting to miss my own cats by this stage. And also in my own defence: I have no defences against cats who really were very sweet.

The afternoon was spent in a rehearsal and then in a performance. Nanjing has a beautiful concert hall, where we sang our first of two performances of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with Charlotte Drummond, from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, as our soprano soloist and Paul Keohone as our baritone.

The City of Glasgow Chorus knows Charlie and Paul well, at this point. They both do a lot of solo work for the Chorus, and Paul, particularly, who has been on tour with us before, to Poland as ‘our Elijah’. They are both incredible talents whose voices brought me to tears multiple times during the week. They are also both thoroughly delightful people who were all too pleased to muck in with everything we did outside of the concert venues, and I think on this I can speak not only for myself when I say that it was a joy to have them with us.

We ended with Auld Lang Syne.

This time, without the police incursion.

*

We were blown into Shanghai on the tail end of a typhoon.

“Welcome to wherever you are,” I murmured to my neighbour, as we fought with suitcases and satchels and umbrellas and looked for our bus, still bleary eyed from the Brahms the previous evening.

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No, but did I mention that there’d been a typhoon?

We would later have a day to see Shanghai. We would go up to the top of the Jin Mao Tower, which is eighty eight floors up and apparently shows a beautiful panorama over the city but on the day we were there featured a wall of thick cloud. We would go for a paddle through the Bund, the waterfront part of Central Shanghai, and would break an array of hotel umbrellas (and I would get lost). A proportion of us would brave the rain and wind still howling around after that typhoon to go on a boat trip down the Huangpu River at night and see the lights of Shanghai, and, oh, I have never been so wet in my life, but I would not have missed that for the world.

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Shanghai: Taken by night. Photo: Taken by iPhone in a storm.

Even at 3am the following morning, debating how best to pack the things I had been wearing, which felt as though they’d been through a washing machine without the benefit of either warm water or a spin cycle, without destroying everything else I owned. Even at 10pm the following night back in Glasgow when I looked sadly at my brogues and wondered if they would ever be wearable again. Even despite all those things, that was a very good night.

First, we had a concert to do.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but, on a bus to the concert hall that afternoon for a rehearsal, I found myself needing to perk up. I was looking forward to it and all, but… Ein Deutsches Requiem is a big sing, and, having last done it less than 24 hours earlier and 200 miles away, there were things that my brain was refusing to compute. Like the fact that I was about to sing it all again. This was a case of the spirit being willing and the flesh being thoroughly knackered.

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And then we walked into the Shanghai Symphony Hall.

As I write that, I’m having the strongest memory.

The people who were there with me know what I’m talking about. The utter perfection of that gem of a space, and the sheer spine-melting joy of that acoustic. My God, that acoustic. Later, under the stage lights and opening with the pianissimo of the first movement, there was a proper fizz at the base of my skull. I can feel it there again now. As the piece progressed to its end, Charlie got to her feet to sing the soprano solo in the fifth movement and I became aware of tears wobbling in the corner of my eye. There are times – not often, but sometimes – that a piece of music will remind you why you believe in God, and this was one of those times.

That concert is the thing I’ll remember about China more than anything – more than the vast emptiness of Tiananmen Square, or the Great Wall of China under the soles of my feet, more than nearly drowning in the Huangpu River or two minutes disembarkations and being the last people out of the airport, more than standing under the lights of Shanghai in the rain, more even than friendship and shared food and much laughter. I will remember all of those things for a very long time, of course I will, but none of them will compare to the memory of standing on that stage.

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That’s us!

We ended, again, with Auld Lang Syne, and this time, having kept it together through the Brahms, just about, as I joined hands with my neighbours I burst into tears. “It’s okay,” I telegraphed frantically. “It’s okay, these are happy tears.” I’ve written three and a half thousand of them and it wasn’t half of what I could have done, but I don’t know that I have the words to describe what those nine days were like, this thing that we did, that I genuinely still can’t really believe we did do.

Instead of words, then, I leave you with music. This link goes to a video of the last two minutes of our last performance of one hell of an adventure.

It was an extraordinary journey, and an extraordinary privilege that I will never ever forget.

Advent 1: Waiting In Darkness, Longing For Light

 On Advent Sunday in 2013, I wrote about beginning this season of watching and waiting and longing in a place where only a couple of days earlier a helicopter had fallen out of the night sky. The tragedy that took place in the air above the Clutha that night and then on the ground rang through the consciousness of Glasgow and her people. The cheerful decorations and the bright shop windows were out of place, in a place that was the voice crying out in the wilderness. A place that needed an Advent God more than ever.

I thought about that tonight.

I don’t think I can say this year that what we need is an Advent God.

It’s what we might want, I guess. The benevolent and twinkly man who comes down to Earth to put the world back to rights, quietly fixing all the things that we messed up. Or else a holy reset button that God can push on Christmas Eve and we all get another chance. It’s tempting. It’s not what God is about, though, and that makes Advent difficult.

And then tonight I went to the Advent Carol Service and heard it said that maybe, maybe this year, this Advent is about the voices of the people who are crying out into the wilderness. And without knowing that that would be exactly what I needed to hear, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

There is pain and anger echoing around the whole world.

We feel it ourselves. We hear it.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like this year there’s been nothing but helicopters falling out of the sky.

In these last weeks of 2016, we live in a world that is less tolerant, less giving, less loving, and scarier than the world many of us had thought we lived in, and we are less and less sure of what the future looks like. In every corner of the world, from the Middle East to the cradles of Western democracy, there are people who no longer know if they have a future of any kind.

Orlando. Nice. The outcomes of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, and the legitimacy that has been claimed by people who want to reverse the tides of social justice and global inclusion. The rise of fascism and the rise in hate crimes across the Western world. Aleppo. The role that the Church continues to play in maintaining the inequality of women and LGBT people. The lives taken by natural disasters. Brussels. The increasing difficulty of speaking truth to power in a time when the act of speaking truth at all seems more and more to be that desperate cry into the wilderness of a world that doesn’t care.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.

The light looks very dim, doesn’t it?

There is no benevolent twinkly gentleman coming to set it all quietly to rights. That isn’t what God is about, nor is it what happened.

In a few weeks, a child will be born in Bethlehem, homeless and the son of a poor unmarried couple. He will live under threat of ethnic cleansing and he and his parents will become refugees. He will have a dream of changing the world. He will grow up and try to push back against oppression and injustice, working hard and under difficult circumstances. He will be persecuted and ignored and derided. His story will end with condemnation and crucifixion. But he will try to change the world anyway.

That’s our Advent God.

If we, the people crying out into the wilderness, are to be his Advent people, that is the responsibility that we take on.

It’s not to wait, not to watch, not to hope that someone else will come and fix it. It’s to accept that the world is as it is and then to get on and try to change it anyway, be that through taking political action, or giving financial support, or acting as an ally to people who have less systemic privilege than you do.

And in honestly working to change the world, that’s where we’ll find God and where we’ll find that light in the darkness.

For I can look out and see a great number marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Martin Luther King, The Birth of a Nation
(extract from the Advent Carol Service, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow)