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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.

*

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.

*

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)

Letter to America, The Morning After An Election

I haven’t slept and I don’t think this is going to be very articulate.

But, first thoughts.

For most of the night I’ve been watching the coverage of the presidential election. This morning, I am scared. I’m scared for women, and for people of colour, and for disabled people, and for poor people, and for people who need hospitals, and for LGBT people, and for the literal planet. I’m scared because of issues of social justice and self determination and the economy and the environment and foreign policy. It’s not just about the presidency; it’s about the vice presidency and the House and the Senate and eventually it’s about the Supreme Court. It’s not just about America; as America goes, so often so goes the world. It’s not even just about last night, it’s about the last two years and the turning political tide that has led us to this point where never in my lifetime have so many people across the Western world held such a fragile grasp on their civil liberties.

I suppose there are people who are not frightened — people who wanted this, or who think they did, and they apparently represent half of the United States. BBC News interviewed a man this morning who represented an organisation called American Muslims for Trump, a first generation immigrant born in Pakistan who loves America and was prepared to swear blind that when Trump talked about Muslims he didn’t mean people like him. He is thrilled; I am terrified for him. I am prepared to believe that some of the people who voted for Donald Trump are not bad people, but are people who have been disenfranchised and lied to and I think maybe he is one of them. I do, though, think some of the people who voted for Donald Trump are bad people. And what’s more important is I think the person they have voted for is a bad person. I don’t believe that he is someone whose ideas are worthy of consideration or whose opinion I happen to disagree with; he’s just wrong.

Today, I live in a world where a xenophobic misogynist with no knowledge or experience, multiple active accusations of sexual assault, a history of multiple bankruptcies, and by all accounts the attention span of a fruit fly is president-elect of the United States. In a world where that man can be pitted against a smart, articulate, qualified woman with a work ethic that I can only gape at, and she still loses that fight. This, in a country that thinks of itself as the most advanced democracy in the world.

I know that there are also people who are not frightened enough. They are the ones who keep saying things about checks and balances, and about him not being able to do that much harm. I think those people are drastically underestimating the power of the executive.

I’ve been thinking about that night, eight years ago, watching that speech in Grant Park, that night when I really believed that the world had changed for the better, and I’m wondering what the hell happened.

It isn’t just about America, and it certainly isn’t just about last night. This election has been a defining moment, for sure, but it comes at the end of two years when right here at home and on a global scale we have seen the rise of the radical right and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

It’s tempting to curl up and lick our wounds, but we can’t do that.

Well, for today we can.

But the sun will rise on tomorrow, and, my friends, tomorrow we’ve got work to do, right across the world. It is time to protect the vulnerable, to speak out for the marginalised, to listen to the disenfranchised, and to fight back against oppression in whatever mask it happens to be wearing on any given day. It’s going to be harder now. It’s going to be more important than it ever has been before.

Every so often this year when I’ve looked at the state of the world and despaired, I’ve come back to something that was posted on social media by Lin Manuel-Miranda on no particular day in July.

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Okay. Let’s go.

The Church of England, and The Sex In Sexuality

The Church of England spent this last weekend finding that they have a gay bishop in their midst, and then by turns tearing its hair out about it and pretending to be completely relaxed about it.

Late on Friday, the news broke on the Guardian website that the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Reverend Nicholas Chamberlain, had given an interview to Harriet Sherwood about his sexuality and his relationship by way of pre-empting a Sunday newspaper that had threatened to out him. He is a gay man, and he is in a long-term relationship that he describes in the most positive of terms: “It is faithful, it is loving, we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company, and we share each other’s life.” It is also sexually abstinent — a requirement of all clergy in the Church of England in same-sex relationships, although not of clergy in opposite-sex relationships.

And — look, and let me just say this. It’s 2016. We’re post-sodomy laws, post-equal age of consent, post-Section 21, post-anti-discrimination legislation, post-marriage equality, for God’s sake. The fact that a journalist pitched a story whose hook was that a person who has broken no laws and harmed no one happened and by all accounts has conducted himself in a manner that was above reproach happens to be gay is horrifying. Tell me that we’ve won the fight; I dare you.

At this point, if you can imagine a response, it has probably been made.

There are parts of the LGBT community who are thrilled, and it’s difficult to blame them. There are parts of the Church who are calling for the Bishop’s resignation, and that was predictable.

And then there’s the vast majority of comments that I’ve seen online, and, honestly, this is from people who are trying to be supportive, and it’s a variation on this:

“… but he’s celibate, so it’s okay.”

Now, leaving aside the fact that the Church of England’s parlance of “celibacy” is inaccurate, which is not Bishop Nicholas’s fault, we’ll move onto this:

It isn’t okay.

It isn’t okay that anyone has to declare anything about the intimacies of their private lives to the newspapers before we decide that they’re good at their job, or that they’re a good person, or that we’re going to support them. It isn’t okay that a person goes for a job interview and is asked questions about whether they have sex and what kind of sex they have and they just have to accept that as a normal thing to be asked. It isn’t okay that the hierarchy of the Church of England claims to be supportive of LGBT clergy while also saying that “homosexual genital acts” must be repented of and banning its clergy from, you know, having them with their spouses, and no one calls them out on the hypocrisy. There are also people over the weekend who have said that those who are expressing concerns like mine are condemning Bishop Nicholas for “not being gay enough”, which is not it at all. I don’t condemn him; I am sort of broken hearted for him and for so many others like him. It’s not about his sexual abstinence. It’s that his choice was between choosing that or denying a call to God, and that that is a choice that more people than you can possibly imagine have had to make. It’s that he had to declare it to the papers and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to answer questions that no straight member of the clergy would ever be asked.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I don’t care what people do in the privacy of their relationships and their bedrooms, but that would be a lie.

I have a friend who was asked once, by someone who was meant to be respectfully listening at a shared conversation and whose parents never taught them to not ask questions they didn’t want answers to, what it is that gay people even do in bed. (If you were wondering: drink tea and listen to Radio 4.)

I’ve said sometimes that the tragedy of the Church’s obsession with sexuality is that I too want us to stop talking about it. I want us to be done with this conversation so that we can move onto talking about climate change and refugees and poverty and building the kingdom of heaven on Earth, and I do want all of those things.

But there’s something else I want too.

I want us to talk about sex.

You all think that I go away to Synod for three days and do nothing but talk about sex, but we don’t do that. In the Church, sex, particularly between partners of the same sex, is something dirty and something that we don’t talk about. TMI, we shout.

It’s time to stop doing that.

I want us to talk about marriage. I want us to talk about relationships. I want us to talk about what makes a good relationship and what makes a bad relationship. I want to talk about why someone might choose — actually choose — to be sexually abstinent, and why that would be fine. I want us to talk about the things that go into making a life together and go into making up a marriage, and I want us to be able to acknowledge that for a lot of people that includes sex. I want us to be able to talk about good sex and bad sex and sexual compatibility. I want us to talk, in the church, about protecting oneself from unwanted pregnancies and STIs. I want there to be conversations about rape and sexual assault and domestic violence among all kinds of couples.

God bless Bishop Nicholas, therefore. God bless those whom he loves and those to whom he ministers. And may God give us strength for a battle that some days it feels like we’re winning and some days it feels like we haven’t even suited up for yet.

These are the conversations that are important. They are the conversations that we do not have. And until we stop the obsession with what sex a person wants to have sex with, we will never be able to have them.

*

NB: This post previously gave the incorrect name of the Guardian journalist involved in the initial article, who was Harriet Sherwood. This has been corrected.

Have We All Survived Changeover?

*clears throat*

Doctors.

How are you all doing?

It’s just about a month now since changeover. I hope that’s time enough for you to have figured out where the toilets are, and how to get hold of psych on call in the middle of the night, and which of your seventeen computer passwords is the correct one to make a CT scan happen. It’s not quite enough time yet to have unlearned the learned response for the way to do things in your old hospital, though; your hospital, where you knew everyone’s name and you knew the protocol for prescribing vancomycin without asking a pharmacist, two nurses, and an FY1. It’s not quite enough time for your new hospital to feel quite like your hospital yet, or for you to not still feel just a little bit at sea.

FY1s, have you stopped needing to suppress giggles yet when you tell people that you’re a doctor? Are your seniors being reasonable and helpful? Are you getting to teaching? Are you remembering to eat and drink? Are you okay? If you are not okay, have you found someone to talk to about that?

I am sort of aware, FY1s, that it would be comforting if I let you believe that the confusion and weirdness of August changeover is inversely proportional to seniority and that it gets less weird and confusing after you’ve done it a couple of times, but, for many many reasons, that would be a lie.

In August, there are new medical registrars who have never had to be the med reg before. FY2s have just completed their first month of being the SHO, and that’s a big step up. All over the NHS, junior doctors have started new training programmes and been given new responsibilities and some are doing it in new Trusts or Deaneries that are entirely foreign to them and where their support networks are not. August is scary as hell. This is why we all walk around the whole month looking like Sputnik just landed on our heads. And for the record, I’ve been working in my Trust for four years and I’ve been working mostly at an SHO-equivalent level for those same four years, and August is still scary as hell. I’m a quarter of the way through this rotation, and I still have not learned everyone’s names or the intricacies of my very specialty-specific and very new-to-me computer system or how a kidney, you know, works.

FY1s, let your comfort if you need it be that every year from now until the end of time we are all in this particular period of weirdness together.

So, therefore, how are the rest of you doing? Are your seniors being reasonable and supportive? Have you found your educational supervisor yet? Have you worked out who exactly it is that you’re on call for? Are you even as we speak lost in the rabbit warren of interventional radiology in a hospital whose layout you still do not quite understand and need one of us to come let you out? (Is that one just me?) Do you need a hug?

Welcome. Pull up a patch of floor. We’ve got cookies and coffee and mutual terror and spare copies of Cheese and Onion.

Blessed Are The Fabulous

The word came down the long parade of singing, dancing, cheering people, spreading amongst the crowd of rainbows: “There are religious protestors up ahead.”

We raised our eyebrows. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an honest-to-God protester at a pride march in Scotland.

I was walking in Glasgow Pride with a group of Scottish Episcopalians yesterday, our numbers and enthusiasm undampened despite the best efforts of the steely Scottish sky to drown us all. I was holding an enormous banner that proclaims, “The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” I was standing with two priests, and behind us were a mass of Episcopalians, young and old, dogs and humans, men and women, bisexual and gay and straight, clergy and laity, veteran Pride attendees and Pride virgins, all wearing badges that say “Love Wins”, and, dashing about among the spectators lined along the pavements, a priest with a rainbow plait in her hair distributed invitations to come to church on Sunday morning.

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Photo: Vicky Gunn

I think there was a time when I’d have said we were a fringe group, in the Church. The first time I did Piskies at Pride, there were five of us. Yesterday, we were at least 25 of us and we were there with the blessing and the endorsement and the funding of my Diocesan Bishop. The world has changed. The church is changing. It has been slow and painful and bloody hard work, but it is happening and its truth is never more clear to me than when we all show up at Pride.

As we rounded the corner onto Saltmarket, the quality of the noise changed. The shouts which had been joyful became angrier, darker. The protestors we had been warned about came into view. A ragtag miserable looking crew, and a street preacher who was waving his bible in the air, and screaming about sodomy and sin and hellfire and damnation. None of it was about a God that I believe in or would have any time for if I did.

My experience of being a Christian who walks in gay pride marches as part of an identifiably Christian organisation is that people are generally quietly pleased to see us there. I’ve always felt welcome at Pride. As a group, we’re always kind of noteworthy — I walk beside someone who goes to Pride wearing a clerical collar and a badge identifying him as “Real Priest”, which is the sort of thing that still perks up most photographers. I’m not sure, though, that our presence has ever been actively cheered.

As we passed that ragtag bunch of protesters, we turned our banner on them.

The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You.

And a roar went up from the crowd.

“Why do you do Pride? Aren’t we a bit past all that? Why is Pride even still necessary?” I’m asked sometimes. And then they remind me: “I mean, you’ve won.”

The truth is that we do Pride because of stuff like that, and because of what that kind of thing represents about the world in which we all live. Because when forty-nine people living at the epicentre of the land of the free and the home of the brave can be killed for being in a gay club, we haven’t won yet. Because when there are parts of the world where people are killed for being on a Pride march, we haven’t won yet. Because when being LGBT is still a criminal act in 72 countries and carries the death penalty in 13 countries, we have evidently not won yet. There are fights that still need fighting.

This weekend, I’ve been thinking about the day Gene Robinson came to Glasgow.

It was a summer day in Glasgow very much like yesterday — dark and dreich and very very wet. It was the year he had been barred from attending the Lambeth Conference and from celebrating Communion in England, and he came to Scotland instead. I remember that I was running very late for church that day, and that I was thoroughly taken aback when I opened my taxi door onto a bedraggled group of protesters and a couple of folk who pounced on me, trying to hand me bible tracts, as I stepped onto Great Western Road. And then from nowhere an arm descended around my shoulders and a voice told me to come inside. Inside, where there was warmth and light and joy and love.

A place where God is love.

The rain thundered down on us yesterday. The preacher ran alongside us with his megaphone, outraged and incoherent and drowned out by the sirens of the Scottish Ambulance Service doing it on purpose. A forest of rainbow umbrellas danced up the street. The people of Glasgow turned out onto the streets and hung out of their windows to cheer us on. Just over my left shoulder, a priest began walking backwards and conducting an impromptu rendition of Dancing Queen. And through the black clouds and pouring rain, the Holy Spirit shimmered and shimmied over our heads, boogeying ahead of us into that better world that we seek to create, where heaven has been built and truth that is Gospel has spread unto the ends of the earth.

God is love. God is love. God is love.

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Photo: Beth Routledge. Artwork: Audrey O’Brien Stewart.

Badges

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I reckon there’s a market for these.

I arrived at church this morning in a whirlwind — filled with caffeine, hair everywhere, glasses wonky, dashing into the sacristy to do the most rapid of changes, from scrubs to cassock, before the service started. The clergy and the rest of the congregation are well used to this by now. A raised eyebrow and a murmur of, “So what time zone are you in today?”

Today, though, I was presented with the latest offering from the Cathedral badge stall (not yet available online).

 

 

 

A Requiem for PACES, and Alleluia

In my third year of medical school, I volunteered to help with the running of the PACES exam at one of the big Glasgow teaching hospitals. It was an opportunity to spend all day dinging a bell, to eat an heroic quantity of Quality Street, and to, between circuits, be shown some clinical findings more complex than those we were usually given in our medical school OSCEs.

In June, I sat PACES.

You may recall that the last time I wrote, I had put myself into some kind of fugue state refreshing the results website.

I passed.

And, you know, saying that, it still doesn’t feel quite real, even two weeks later.

I passed.

And — well, let me explain this, a little bit.

In the UK, one of the criterion for progressing in a medical career is to complete the necessary postgraduate qualifications to become a member of the relevant specialist “College”. There is a Royal College of Surgeons, and a Royal College of Emergency Medicine, and a Royal College of General Practitioners, and so on. The membership qualifications for the Royal College of Physicians come in three parts, of which PACES is the final part. In all, they have taken three years, untold hours, and a significant amount of actual money spent on exam fees, revision materials, and all the caffeine in Glasgow. I also have less hair than when I started.

The first two parts are multiple choice. The first part is six hours long (with a break in the middle), and I have previously described it as being not unlike spending six hours having one’s brains kicked in by a rugby team. I took it four times. The last time was in the Newcastle United football stadium, one of the stranger places I’ve ever been in the name of my medical education. The second part is nine hours long, and I sat that only once but in a room that contained no air during the hottest two days there have ever been in the west of Scotland. After 27 hours worth of multiple choice exam, I had lost the will to live but had grown very comfortable with colouring in boxes in 2B pencil.

The third part is not like that.

I think the thing that will perhaps best describe PACES is for me to say that even while in the middle of actually taking it, I was aware that I was muttering frantic karmic apologies to every single doctor at whom I had dinged that bell back when I was a third year medical student.

“You will be fine,” my consultants had been saying to me in the week leading up to it. “You’re a good doctor.” This was kind of them, but I kept reminding them that being competent at my job and appearing competent in this exam were two very different kinds of competent.

You wake up too early in the morning. You try to eat breakfast. You travel to a hospital that is not your own, and may not be exactly in the back of beyond but certainly feels like it. I went off to the conference suite of a hotel that is attached to the national specialist cardiology centre — a place that I have spent a lot of time on the phone to, but, despite nine years of living in Scotland, had never seen for myself. “This is Dalmuir, where this train will terminate,” said the Scotrail tannoy, which felt ominous. You sit in a room where time stops, making nervous small talk with the other four people who are taking the exam with you, filling in your name and candidate number on sixteen separate pieces of paper and flicking frantically through Cases for PACES as you try to remember the indications for liver transplant.

The next two hours pass at warp speed.

The basic structure is the same for everyone: assessments of communication skills and ethics, examinations in the four major body systems, and a final station two-case grab-bag of can-be-absolutely-anything. The patients are sometimes actors, but are mostly real patients who have been recruited in for the day. In my version of the exam, I was asked to take a history from a woman who I promptly blanked on half of her presenting complaint, I was asked to counsel a young man who was angry with my boss, I struggled to find anything at all wrong with the patient whose abdomen I was examining, and trying to listen for heart sounds I briefly wondered if my stethoscope had turned itself off. In the middle of telling me about his syncope, one patient, who had also mentioned that he was on a blood-thinning medication, said that he had hit his head on the ground when he had fainted. “I haven’t really,” he said when I started trying to look for a head injury. “I’m allowed to tell you that I haven’t really.” The whole time, there were two examiners, watching, scribbling things on those pieces of paper that I had painstakingly filled in back in the room-where-time-stopped.

As each of my examinations was completed, I turned to them, tried for a winning smile, and began, “Mr Jones is a fifty seven year old gentleman. He is comfortable at rest…”

In this exam, stage fright is a real thing.

A week earlier, in Edinburgh, I had sat down after making a speech to the great and the good of the Scottish Episcopal Church and said that if failing my exam was the price I had to pay for being there, it would have been worth it. (I could, after all, have sat it again in the autumn, which would have been a pain but hardly the end of the world.) Now, on the other side of it, it’s not that I’d necessarily recommend spending three days at General Synod as a revision strategy for PACES, but the experience does throw a person’s whole idea of what counts as an intimidating room into rather harsh perspective.

They go on to ask questions. I said things like, “I would want to get an abdominal ultrasound,” and, “I would expect the left hemidiaphragm to be raised on chest x-ray,” and, “Oh, hell, I’m sorry, I totally forgot to ask him about that,” and, at one point, “Well, on a SPECT scan you’d normally see, uh — ” and, screwing my nose up as I tried and failed to articulate it, drew a picture of what you’d normally see on a SPECT scan with my fingers in the air.

And then that bloody bell dings and you get the hell out of there while shouting through the door, “I’d do an ESR and a CRP, too!”

Forget having your brains kicked in by a rugby team.

“I think I’ve been smacked in the face with a baseball bat,” I said, collapsing in the car.

It wouldn’t have been the end of the world, of course, to take it again, but am I ever glad that I haven’t got to.

(Im)patiently Waiting

My job is all wait and hurry up.

It’s about waiting for the patients to roll in the door from ED and waiting for the urgent labs to come back and waiting the two minutes for the next rhythm check.

Once, waiting for the gas machine to finish an uninterruptible calibration cycle so that I could process the blood gas that I’d run across from a different building at 2am. The clock said it took about fifteen minutes. I still think it took about three hours.

And then it’s about the hurry up and the spaces between the waiting: the three patients needing sorted out all at once, the electrolytes with numbers that trigger a very particular on switch in the brain, the flurry of activity that happens at metronomic two minute intervals during a cardiac arrest.

The last two weeks, I’ve been suffering through a different kind of waiting.

It is two weeks ago today that I sat PACES, the clinical and final part of the exams for Membership of the Royal College of Physicians.

First, there was the waiting around before the exam. The waking up far too early and pacing the kitchen. The nervous twitching on the train out to the hospital in Dalmuir. They ask you to arrive an hour early, so obviously you arrive two hours early and have nothing to do but sit, looking at the walls, trying and largely failing to recall the causes of cerebellar syndrome and making desultory small talk with four strangers whose faces are all different shades of green.

And, then, finally, the hurry up: the two hours that ended before I’d properly registered that they’d started.

I beg of you, do not ask me how it went.

My colleagues mostly think that it will have been fine.

I mostly agree, but the reason I mostly agree is because I think I’ll be fine either way. I’ve taken this exam comparatively early, and I have plenty of time to take it again.

This incredibly sensible way of looking at things has not stopped my hairline slowly receding every day that passes with no result, or, for the last thirteen days — and, remembering how patient I was with the gas machine and its calibration cycle, you will be unsurprised to learn that this is a time period that I have come to perceive as my entire life — my main extracurricular activity being the act of hitting refresh on the MRCP website.

A person can go a bit mad. “I’m sure I sat it,” I said to a colleague today. “I don’t think it was a delusion.”

I am not good at this part.

After Orlando

It is difficult to know where to begin.

This has been an uncomfortable week to occupy space in the world.

As a person whose identity is bound up in being female, being LGBTQ, believing in liberal democracy.

A little over a week ago, I gave a speech in which I called upon people to play their part in dismantling systems that have kept the oppressed oppressed. I was speaking particularly about the place of people who are gay and lesbian in Scottish Episcopal Church, but I was also speaking about all people of all races and religions and nationalities and sexualities and gender identities and all differences that have led to the Church as seeing them as Other.

I did not know when I said that that less than 48 hours later, there would be a massacre of the LGBTQ community in Florida. In the supposed land of the free and the home of the brave.

And nor did I know when I said that that this week there would be a political assassination on a British street, of a woman of conviction and principle who died because she believed in justice and equality and the possibility of a better world.

Why do I think that marriage equality is important? Why do I still think in the face of death and destruction and chaos that this is something still worth fighting for?

Because every time we declare that marginalised people of any kind are less important, are less than fully human, are not equal but are equal but must be separate, every time, that voice lends legitimacy to racism and misogyny and small-mindedness and homophobia.

And every time we say fuck that, that voice makes the world a little bit better.

In church this morning, all three people on the altar were LGBT. It wasn’t on purpose. It isn’t the first time. It probably wasn’t noticed by three quarters of the people in the congregation. It wasn’t a statement, but it felt like one anyway.

I am aware that I speak from a place of extraordinary privilege — a place of being white, being Western, being middle class. I am aware that when I say it has been an uncomfortable week, I am also saying that I cannot conceive of the ten thousand times anger and pain of my lesbian and gay sisters and brothers who are Muslim and Latinx nor of the real fear of migrants and refugees in the UK that they now have a target painted on their backs.

It’s only politics, they tell me.

Except, we know — we have always known — that “only” politics is “only” a matter of literal life and death.

This week, in all the confusion, in all the not knowing what to say, I’ve been looking for God. For a God who doesn’t exist in the ephemeral or in the thoughts and prayers and best wishes. For a God who exists in the helpers. In the emergency services and the bystanders. In the people and voices that have taken this week onto the street and the airwaves to say that hate will never ever win. In my own queer family. In the voice of Jo Cox, and the creed of decency and humanity that she died for and that I hold to be Gospel truth.

We remember and hold before us the legacy of people who swore to change the world — from Birstall to Orlando, from the Stonewall riots to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the saints and martyrs who have gone before us.

It’s up to us now.