Dispensing Witan Wisdom Since The Days of King Eggbound The Unready...

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Epiblog for the Feast of St Anselm

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The cold, late Spring continues, with both lots of Maisie’s indestructible daffodils now in full flower, nodding their yellow trumpets in the breeze. They remain, however, the only splash of colour in the garden. The Forsythia, which is normally out now in that heart-stoppingly brief blaze of yellow so bright you couldn’t really paint it, stubbornly refuses to show.  And it’s not just our garden that’s a largely brown, dead wilderness. A local news report on Look North this week showed a West Yorkshire nursery dumping £1000s worth of plants, simply because nobody is gardening, nobody is planting, and, sadly, nobody is buying.

The garden is now getting to the top of my urgent things to do list, but this week I’ve had other, even more urgent things to attend to.  As well as all the business of laying out books, trying to plan a summer school, and negotiating the contract for the Portuguese edition of The Spot on My Bum, on behalf of Gez Walsh, I’ve also had a torrid week with the door handle.

It started on Monday, when Debbie pulled the inside handle off, as she exited, late and in a hurry, for her afternoon class at Dewsbury.  That was soon rectified – it’s got to the stage now where I can take it apart and re-assemble it in a couple of minutes, a bit like those blokes at the Royal Tournament who used to dismantle field guns and pass them through a hole in a wall.

However, when Debbie returned at teatime, she came in and immediately said “What’s wrong with the door handle?” to which I replied,

“Nothing. I fixed it.”

“No, the handle on the outside. It’s missing altogether. I had to shoulder-barge the door to get in.”

Sure enough, when I went to check, this was indeed the case. I looked around outside on my wheelchair ramp, in case it had merely fallen off, perhaps as an unintended consequence of my earlier repair on the inside handle, but there was no sign of it lying on the ground or on the ramp.

The only people who had been to the house since Debbie had left at lunchtime were the postman, and Grandad, who had called by to take Zak and Freddie walkies. Discounting the postman as a likely handle-thief, I saw immediately what must have happened. Deb’s dad must have pulled the handle off when he went out with the dogs, and – unable to get back in – he must have pocketed it and taken it with him, so he’d have it when he came back.  True, it seemed unlikely, but as Sherlock Homes says, once you have discounted the impossible, what is left, however improbable, must be the truth. Or something.

I explained this theory to Debbie, and she seemed to accept it, and we settled down to other things (her, marking, me making tea) to await his return.  The dogs came barrelling in, with him following more slowly, as is his wont these days. His first words were:

“I see you’ve made the house burglar-proof, then!”

“Eh?” says I, “Oh, you mean the handle. Yes, have you got it? Did you take it with you?”

“No, it was like that when I came for the dogs, I had to shove the door to get in.”

Resisting the urge to say “Well why didn’t you bloody well say something at the time, then?” I realised this left only one suspect. Eurnlee wurn person had boeth ze means, and ze motive. Ze postman. [Sorry, I just had to do that last bit as Hercule Poirot]. Unlikely as it might seem, the postman had made off with the door handle. But why? Or had he? It seemed so improbable that I went out for just one more look, prior to phoning an emergency locksmith, which was our only other option, if we wanted to be able to lock the door that night and/or get out again in the morning.

I looked absolutely everywhere, and finally I saw it, wedged in an obscure crevice on one of the outside windowsills. It had obviously come off in his hand, but why he chose that particular out of the way hole to stash the now-detached handle, God only knows.  Anyway, it was back in situ in a couple of minutes and, having wasted acres of time on the whole imbroglio, I felt the only sane reaction was to put the kettle on.

Matilda, of course, slept through all of this trauma, in fact that seems to be her default setting these days, having settled down into a routine where she sleeps on the foot of my bed in a large patch of sunshine (when the Almighty provides it) all day, and then marauds around the house at night, scratting in her litter tray, noisily chomping her way through the food in her bowl, or thundering across the bare floorboards in a sudden burst of cat-madness.

On Monday night, after an already traumatic day, everyone had gone to bed bar me, and I was just getting ready to go, when I heard her start up with a full-blown cat-territorial-argument style caterwaul from the vicinity of Colin’s front room.  What the hell was she doing? Was she stuck somewhere? Thinking that somehow, maybe another cat had got in through the cat flap, and/or she’d caught a mouse, and/or she was having a barney with Freddie who’d come back downstairs for some reason, I went trundling through to see what the beef was.

She was pressed up sideways against the glass panel in Colin’s front door, eyes like saucers and her tail the size of a bog-brush, giving it the verbals at something, or someone, on the other side of the glass, to whom she had clearly taken great exception. Probably another cat, either Spidey, or John’s cat from next door. Or possibly Brenda or Freda. Either way, she was telling the intruder in no uncertain terms to bugger off, and in the process, waking the whole household.  Eventually, whatever it was must have taken the hint, because she packed it in and went back to her bed, where I shortly joined her, as it was actually my bed, a point which she disputes.

It comes to something when the cat is a more effective guard-dog than either of the two dogs, both of whom snore on resolutely during the nocturnal visits of Brenda, who has been calling by for her tea so regularly now that she hardly merits a mention. Of course, it could be that the doggies are employing reverse kidology, and only pretending to be asleep in case I suddenly demand that they do their duty, and thrust them out into the cold and dark to confront this strange, fierce, hairy beast that is impinging on their territory.

Brenda, for her part, is a very efficient consumer/recycler of leftovers, nuts and raisins, and stale bread.  As indeed are the birds and the squirrels who swarm over the decking in – so it seems – ever increasing numbers every time I put some peanuts out.  Poor little Freddie expends a lot of his energy, elderly dog that he is, yapping fiercely at them from behind the conservatory door,  and they, in turn, completely ignore him. I know that grey squirrels are in effect, just rats with good PR, but nevertheless, they are undeniably cute. On the feathered fowl front, Ronnie the Raven (or near offer) has put in a re-appearance, and I have confirmed, from managing to get a good look at him, that he is indeed, as the joiner who did our panelling suggested, a carrion crow, but Ronnie the crow isn’t so alliterative.

The week was, inevitably, dominated by a singular event which interrupted the normal processes of life. Not the Boston bombings, nor the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, outrages though they both were, in their own way, but the severe stormy winds on Wednesday night through into Thursday.  My perspective on this sort of thing has changed a lot since I became a householder. I was living in Sussex during the great hurricane of 1987, and it was – in a sort of Dunkirk spirit, keep-calm-and-carry-on, sort of way – almost fun.  But that was because when I was lying in bed listening to the tiles being stripped off the roof and going plink, plink, plink, one after the other down into the courtyard below, I was comforted by the knowledge that they were my landlord’s tiles, not mine.

This time, I listened with great trepidation for any signs of Colin’s roof, the single worst weak-point of the whole house, and the biggest structural task needing repair, apart from some of the windows, parting company with its rafters. Fortunately, this time, we got away with it. Some of the willow screen fencing originally put in to contain Elvis has been flattened, so I need to order some more fence posts, and one of my plastic greenhouses is leaning at a drunken angle, everything inside, seed trays and propagators, in a jumbled shambles, so that’s another job for next weekend.  Other than that, and fallen twigs and branches scattered everywhere, we seem to have got off rather lightly, but it was an anxious night with not much sleep.  Earlier on, Grandad had actually been blown over – knocked off his feet by the wind – when out with the doggies, and arrived back looking very shaky and doddery, to the extent that I was quite concerned about him, but he said that he’d be OK once he’d got back home and rested up.

My thankful mood on Thursday morning was only dented slightly when Debbie pulled the door handle off (the inside this time) when leaving for her morning class at Birstall. I’d been trying to avoid the BBC’s re-writing of history to retrospectively canonise Margaret Thatcher as some sort of secular saint, and had managed to do so by and large, but I did catch the local news reports of her mock-funeral in Goldthorpe, where an effigy of the Iron Lady was drawn through the streets on a cart pulled by a black plumed horse, and led by a man playing the bagpipes for some reason, then hanged, before being burned, in a coffin inscribed “Burn in hell with Jimmy Savile”, on a pile of pallets on some waste ground.

Waste ground is easy to find in Goldthorpe, of course, and places like it. I spent twenty one years of my life in Goldthorpe, in a small room with four bars across the window. I wasn’t in jail; I was lucky enough to have a job (or thought I was, at the time – heaven knows, I’m miserable now) and the bars were to keep people out, not to keep me in – although it often felt that way.  Goldthorpe actually came through the Miners’ strike of 1984 with the pit intact. The Goldthorpe pit, and the cluster around it, were casualties of the Heseltine-inspired closures programme, designed to kill off the rump of the industry so that it could be privatised, in 1992-94.  Grimethorpe, Great Houghton and Darfield went in 1993, and the Goldthorpe pit and the nearby Hickleton Main Colliery at Thurnscoe were closed in 1994.

True, there was an effort made to secure inward investment to replace lost jobs, and the area was an “Objective 1” area for EU aid money. However, and I can personally attest to this, much of the cash went in training programmes, training people to get them jobs which didn’t exist, rather than in creating jobs; and where large companies did settle in the Dearne valley, in some cases it was done purely cynically, with the businesses staying only as long as the rates holidays, the subsidies and the tax breaks lasted, and then closing down and relocating to another depressed area elsewhere, to begin the cycle of subsidised trading yet again.  I said at the time, and I still stand by it, that I can’t see any difference between the government subsidising a nationalised industry directly and the government (directly, or via local government) subsidising the industries it was trying to entice into the former South Yorkshire coalfield to replace the jobs it had shut down. It would have been less hassle all round just to have kept the jobs in place to start with. But that was political anathema to Margaret Thatcher and her followers, who even today believe, pace Mervyn King and people like Charles Moore, that unemployment in the North of England is a price worth paying for the privilege of living in the soft south-east.

So, although I don’t condone what was done in Goldthorpe on Wednesday, I can see why it happened. In fact, I am surprised it was only carried out in effigy, and not in person.  The justification for closing the pits, something I argued against at the time, even going on a demo and marching against it through the streets of Barnsley behind the banner of the NUM (in the days when I could still march) was that the market for gas was better value. At the time, there was widespread suspicion that this was not the case, and that the government was massaging the situation for political ends.

It is perfectly possible to back up any dodgy political proposition, however phoney, and make it look quasi-plausible by the carefully selected use of statistics. I started to look at some of the claims that were currently being made about welfare, for instance, following the Philpott case. [In passing, I should point out that all governments do this: Blair was a past-master at it, as anyone who can remember the claim about WMD being ready in 45 minutes will attest]. The current mantra being recited by people like Iain Duncan-Smith is that it is unfair to have a situation where someone in work has to earn £41,000pa just to be on the same level with a family on benefits.

Once you start to pick it apart, however, you find out that the figure of £41,000pa, which does indeed come down to about £26,000pa after deductions, is not equivalent to the average income of a family on benefits, as the £26,000 level at which benefits are now “capped” is only a very tiny percentage of benefit recipients.  It would have been more honest to have said “Is it fair that someone has to earn £41,000 a year in order to be on the same level of income as the tiny minority of benefits recipients who obtain the maximum amount, capped at £26,000?" But it makes for much better headlines in the Daily Mail if you can get away unchallenged with asserting that in some way £26,000pa is a typical, average income of a household on benefits, instead of admitting the truth, that it’s only a few thousand people who are in this position.

Similarly, the assertion that “already”, some 8000 people have been driven off benefits because of the cap. That figure, used by Iain Duncan-Smith and others, is actually the normal amount of people coming off benefits over that period. No one knows how many of those 8000 were specifically induced to do so by the threat of a benefits cap. But that doesn’t stop IDS making it up as he goes along.

Other useful idiots are all too happy to join in the chorus. A. N. Wilson, writing on the Philpotts, is horrified that spending on benefits has apparently reached 13% of GDP – omitting to note that it has hit similar levels before, including under Thatcher’s reign.  And the 878,000 people who he assert have been “forced off benefits by tough new government tests” is, in fact, four years worth of  the natural wastage of 219,000 people a year who come off ESA for a variety of reasons; some die, some get work, some get better.

Time and time again, when you start to drill down into the detail of these pronouncements from the Junta, you find that they are mainly concocted of flim-flam, tissue of lies, smoke, mirrors, chip fat and gunge.  Even George Osborne’s favourite economists this week have been caught out by a PhD student in America who happened to notice that the Excel spreadsheet on which their influential paper on the effect of high national debt on growth was a few cells short of a formula, as indeed is George Osborne. No wonder he was in tears on Wednesday.

What gets measured gets managed, and whoever forms the next government, I hope they make it a priority to reform the system of gathering government statistics to the effect that some of the things about which we actually need to know the answers start getting recorded. But I may as well save my breath to cool my porridge.

Where are the jobs, in any case? There is a commonly held belief that there is work there if people want it, but with 16-24 youth unemployment in areas such as Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield running at around 9.8% and the economy, even with its forecasts downgraded, bumping along the bottom, I really do strain to see where the recovery is going to take place. The Federation of Small Businesses is worried that the ritual burning in effigy of Mrs Thatcher is going to hurt inward investment into Goldthorpe. What inward investment would that be?

The Junta would point to the fact that “a million new private sector jobs” have been created, without going on to add that the definition of what constitutes being “in work” is so wide as to be almost meaningless. Meanwhile, the unemployment head count has gone up, but the number of fresh claims for JSA (Jobseeker’s Allowance) has fallen. The fact that there are two different methods of enumerating unemployment is confusing in itself, and it’s not helped when politicians use the terms interchangeably, and omit to mention that, although the number of people coming on to JSA is falling, so is the number signing off it, indicating maybe things aren’t as rosy as they would have us believe. As the independent web site Fact Check put it: 

…in short, not all unemployed people are eligible for JSA, some are eligible but don't claim it, and some people who are eligible for JSA may not fit the definition of unemployed (those working fewer than 16 hours per week can claim, for example).

Meanwhile, flamboyant and super-wealthy banker Rich Ricci is to join the ranks of the unemployed, though I doubt he will be signing on when he leaves Barclays. The racehorse-owning 49-year-old head of Barclays investment bank will retire from his post within weeks, with a notice period payment of up to £700,000. And of course, as they do every year, the Canadians are indulging in the ritual slaughter of baby seal pups while pretending to be a modern, civilized nation and nobody apart from a few animal welfare charities lifts a finger to try and stop them.  So, yes, it’s been a great week in the big wide world out there. The Director of the charity Network for Animals, reported from Newfoundland that:

“The scenes of cruelty we have witnessed are heartbreaking. Live seal pups are being impaled on steel hooks and dragged onboard sealing vessels while still conscious; wounded baby seals are escaping into the water where they will die a slow death; baby seals are crying out in agony after being shot in the face. More than 10,000 baby seals were slaughtered in just a few days. Global warming is causing the baby seals' sea ice habitat to literally melt from under them. Many of these defenceless pups are being forced into open water before they are old enough to survive there. Unbelievably, the Canadian government is allowing sealers to club and shoot the pups that live through this ice disaster.”

At times like these, I really would like to harpoon Stephen Harper. But it’s not been all bad news this week [although it nearly has].  On Friday I got an email from Shelter about supporter Matt Ruskin

Matt was once homeless himself. In fact, he's been homeless three times -- starting when he was just eight years old. By his teens, his family had fallen apart and he was sleeping in a broom cupboard in his nan's one-bedroom flat, which sounds like a line from the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, until you realise it’s true.

Matt was homeless throughout his 20s -- an experience he calls "dehumanising" -- but more than a decade on, he's a successful businessman, married with two young children. Now, he wants to help people who are still struggling with homelessness. So on  4 May, Matt will tackle a gruelling 12-mile obstacle course designed by the Special Forces, all to raise funds for Shelter. You can sponsor him here:


As Matt says, homelessness is not always the anonymous person in the doorway of a shop or church. Knowing how easy it is to make the wrong choices and end up homeless again, he says he is constantly watchful -- especially now he has a family of his own:

"The spectre of homelessness is so much more frightening when the eyes of your children look deep within you with such unconditional trust. On occasion I have been in utter despair and consumed with panic, but I have mustered the strength from somewhere and am in control again. Always watchful, but in control."

I don’t normally put myself out to proselytise on behalf of charities, with the possible exceptions of Mossburn and RAIN Rescue, and people like Wood Green Animal Shelter, about whom I wrote last week.  I do think, and I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise, that the larger the charity, the less likely it is that your money will actually a) get to the cause in question and b) do any good, and if you doubt this, have a read of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, which is very illuminating on the actual harm that aid handouts in eastern Africa can cause. I have no way of quickly finding out what proportion of donations to Shelter actually go straight to the cause as opposed to being swallowed up by admin, so I offer the link with no warranty, express, implied, or otherwise.  Shelter are a bit like the Labour Party, the Church of England, or the WI; what passes for their heart is in what passes or the right place, I suppose.

Speaking of the Church of England, in what is (nominally, at any rate) supposed to be a blog devoted to the struggle for faith and prayer, today, Sunday, is the Feast Day of St Anselm. St Anselm, who lived from 1033 to 1109, was born at Aoust, in the Piedmont; a long way from Canterbury, where he ended up.  Aged 15, he attempted to join a monastery, but was rebuffed. One of the standard hagiographies says:
Neglecting, during the course of his studies, to cultivate the divine seed in his heart, he lost this inclination, and, his mother being dead, he fell into tepidity; and, without being sensible of the fatal tendency of vanity and pleasure, began to walk in the broad way of the world: so dangerous a thing is it to neglect the inspirations of grace!

He seems to have pulled it round, though, because, after his mother’s death, he made his way first to Burgundy, where he studied for three years, then to the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, where he became a pupil of Lanfranc, who eventually became William’s Archbishop. Eventually, in 1060, following his father’s death, Anselm took Holy Orders, and by 1063 became the Prior of Bec himself, when Lanfranc moved on to Caen.

In his time as Prior of Bec, Anselm had already started writing theological tracts; he wrote his Monologium, so called because in this work he speaks alone, explaining the metaphysical proofs of the existence and nature of God, followed by the Prosologium, a meditation on the attributes of God. So, all in all, his material was God-related, as you might expect. If he did knock out thrillers on the side, none of them has survived. He would have been hard put to write anything other than theology anyway, as, while Prior, he followed up the first two works with On Truth, On Freewill, and On the Fall of the Devil. or, On the Origin of Evil, and also his Grammarian, a treatise on Dialectics, or the art of reasoning. Clearly, Anselm was on a fast track to glory, and when the Abbot of Bec died in 1078, the natural successor was Anselm.

This is where the connection with England arises. The Abbey of Bec held extensive lands in England, necessitating travel by the Abbot on a fairly regular basis to oversee them. Also, by this time, Lanfranc, his former mentor, was Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed by William after the Norman Conquest.  It seems that Anselm got on very well with William, who was, by all accounts, a complete bastard in nature as well as name, but was a different man altogether in the company of Anselm, the affable Abbot of Bec.

By 1089, Lanfranc was dead, and the post of Archbishop of Canterbury was vacant. William the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus, had said there would be no replacement, largely because he had succeeded in diverting most of the income and benefits of the See of Canterbury into his own Royal coffers! In 1092, Anselm received a message from one of his former acquaintances, Hugh, Earl of Chester, to the effect that he (Hugh) was ill, and also he needed help with setting up a Priory dedicated to Chester’s own saint, St Werburgh.  This wasn’t that unusual, in terms of medieval thinking. People often made such arrangements to safeguard their immortal soul, and no doubt if Hugh, Earl of Chester had died, the Priory would have been stuffed to the gills with Chantry Priests saying masses for him. He didn’t, however, or at least not right then, and Anselm would have gone home, except the King forbade it.

The next twist in the knotted skein of Anselm’s life happened in 1093, when William Rufus himself fell ill, and, fearing that he was going to die, decided to wipe the slate clean, pardoning everyone he’d ever fallen out with, discharging debtors and generally tidying up the loose ends of his reign, which were many. One such loose end was the question of who should be Archbishop, and William, terrified that his soul would burn forever if he died with the post unfilled, immediately backtracked and offered it to Anselm. Who refused, on the grounds that he was quite happy where he was, he was unworthy of such high public office and so on, and so on. There is some debate amongst scholars about whether Anselm’s reluctance was genuine or not, or whether he was doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of saying “Oh, I couldn’t possibly” when someone offers you the last macaroon, and then taking it anyway.

Matters came to a head when the bishops, who took the King’s side in this dispute, seized Anselm, forced a pastoral staff into his hands, more or less carried him into the church, and sung a Te Deum over him, whether he liked it or not. Get out of that one, then!  Anselm still refused to take it seriously, however, and did not accept the honour until the King had agreed to recognise Pope Urban (presumably by the fact that he was wearing shades and had his hat on back to front) and, possibly more important, had agreed to restore all of the lands and revenues that had been seized from the See of Canterbury since the time of Lanfranc.

It would be good to report that Anselm led a blameless and happy life thereafter, but, sadly, this wasn’t the case. William continued to back-track and to attempt to move the ecclesiastical goalposts, and Anselm responded by condemning the King’s attempts to appropriate land and money belonging to the church. In fact, within a couple of years, William, who had been so anxious for Anselm to be appointed, was now trying to deprive him of his living! The bishops were anxious to please the King, and went along with the idea of getting rid of Anselm, but the barons couldn’t see what the problem was, so the King eventually wrote to Pope Urban, guaranteeing to recognise him and to pay him an annual pension out of England if he, in return, would depose Anselm.  The Pope, via a legate, said no, and Anselm then wrote to him, complaining about William and his conduct. And so it went on.  Anselm applied to the King to be allowed to travel to Rome and seek the counsel of the Pope in person, and the King refused, three times, adding on the third occasion that if Anselm did leave England, William would one more immediately seize the lands and assets off the See of Canterbury.

Needless to say, Anselm immediately disguised himself as a pilgrim, and set sail from Dover, accompanied by a few trusted companions. He got as far as Lyons in France, where he was stuck because of the presence of the Anti-Pope at Avignon, barring the road to Rome, and also, while there, Anselm fell ill.  This was that rather surreal time in the history of the church when they had two Popes on the go, the Pope, and the Anti-Pope. Good job they never met, or there would have been the sort of explosion Dan Brown could only dream of.  This is also why you should never put pasta and antipasta on the same plate.

Finally, in 1098, Anselm reached Rome, and the Pope agreed to write to William Rufus demanding restitution of that which he had seized. Anselm, meanwhile, found the time during his stay to churn out two more works; Why God was made Man and On the Faith of the Trinity and Incarnation, to add to the growing pile. Anselm asked the Pope to relieve him of his duty, saying that it was pointless to return to England; the Pope refused, and was later minded to excommunicate William Rufus, until Anselm begged him not to do so.  The Pope relented and said that instead he would merely threaten William with excommunication. Shades of Michael Howard. Paxman would have had a field day.

Anselm made his way back to Lyons, stopping off there to write On the Conception of the Virgin, and On Original Sin.  In  August 1100, William Rufus had his fateful rendezvous with Walter Tyrell in the New Forest, or, more specifically, with a crossbow-bolt fired by Walter, whose attitude to the risks involved in hunting seems to have prefigured that of Dick Cheney.  Anselm, hearing the news, hastened to return to England, having been invited by the new King, Henry I, and landed at Dover on 23rd September, 1100.

Henry I had a similar attitude to the church’s property and incomes as William had, but before relations could deteriorate to a similar level, Henry faced a much bigger threat, when Robert, Duke of Normandy decided he would rather like the crown of England too, thank you very much, and started to prepare to invade. He got as far as landing at Portsmouth with an army, and things looked decidedly dodgy at that point for Henry, as several of his barons were preparing to switch allegiances to Robert.  In a classic demonstration of the axiom that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, Henry turned to God, in the form of Anselm, for help. In addition to sending a quota of armed men (this was in the days when bishops were allowed to have their own, private armed retainers; these days they just employ secretaries to write back to nutters like me, that is when they can be bothered to reply at all) Anselm issued generic threats of excommunication to any baron who broke his oath to the King, and one against Robert for good measure.  Robert retreated to Normandy. Being excommunicated was a big thing in those days.

Unfortunately for Anselm, the controversy over whether the King had the power of investiture or not continued to smoulder. Before being distracted by Robert, both Henry and Anselm had appealed to the new Pope (Pope Paschal) on the issue, and the Pope had ruled in Anselm’s favour. It seems crazy to us, in these secular times, that this can be such a big deal, but it was, and thus Anselm found himself again in exile, from 1105 onwards, until 1107; meanwhile, Pope Paschal retaliated by excommunicating all those bishops Henry had invested.  In 1106, Henry travelled to the Abbey of Bec and met with Anselm, at which meeting a compromise was established and various excommunications and threats of excommunications were reversed, and this eventually became the Concordat of London, which allowed Anselm to return to England, and live out his last two years carrying out his normal duties as Archbishop, dying on 21st April 1109. 

So, what are we to make of St Anselm? The first thing that strikes me is how much we know about him, compared to, say, some of the early Roman martyrs, who scarcely troubled the scorers.  Also that it must have been rather fun, if rather terrifying, to live in an age when invading armies could be stopped by simply anathematizing or excommunicating their leaders.  Modern scholars disagree about whether Anselm acted purely on his own behalf, to strengthen the political position of the See of Canterbury, or as the Pope’s representative, or as something in between the two. But there was also a human face to the man, as recorded by a contemporary chronicler:

One day as he was riding to his manor of Herse, a hare, pursued by the dogs, ran under his horse for refuge: at which the saint stopped, and the hounds stood at bay. The hunters laughed, but the saint said, weeping, "This hare puts me in mind of a poor sinner just upon the point of departing this life, surrounded with devils, waiting to carry away their prey." The hare going off, he forbade her to be pursued, and was obeyed, not a hound stirring after her. In like manner, every object served to raise his mind to God, with whom he always conversed in his heart, and, in the midst of noise and tumult, he enjoyed the tranquility of holy contemplation; so strongly was his soul sequestered from, and raised above the world.

What amazes me, however, is the amount of writing he managed to do, in the midst of all this political chaos raging around him. I first read Anselm’s Ontological Proof of the existence of God at the age of eighteen, and, forty years, later, I have to say, it still puzzles me. These days, though, I regard any attempts at proving or disproving the existence of God to be inherently futile, but nevertheless, Anselm’s Proof is like one of those “brothers and sisters have I none…” puzzles, or the Cretan Paradox; it grips your mind and it won’t let go, but just when you think you’ve got it, it’s slip-sliding away from underneath you.

I’ve been told off, by philosophers, no less, for writing about philosophy on here. Because I have no formal training in philosophy, I have been told I should leave philosophy to the experts. I wonder how those experts became experts in the first place, except by making the same blunders they accuse me of making?

Anyway, if you are truly interested in the Ontological Proof of the Existence of God, there is reams of stuff on it which you can look up, but basically it says that his belief in the existence of God rests on the phrase "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". He reasoned that, if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" existed only in the intellect, it would not be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived", since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater.

It follows, according to Anselm, that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" must exist in reality. The bulk of the Proslogion is taken up with Anselm's attempt to establish the identity of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" as God, and thus to establish that God exists in reality. This is all very fine and dandy, but it assumes a difference between that which exists “only in the intellect”, and that which exists “in reality” which the principles of modern physics seems to undermine.

It still staggers me, though, that he found time to even think this stuff, let alone write it down, at a period when messengers must have been bursting into his chamber every few minutes with news of William’s latest outrage, and the Templars were busy carrying cats to Dover Castle.

Anselm also had a stab at answering the biggest question of all, why did the Crucifixion have to be like it was, and once more, at the risk of outraging the philosophers in the audience, here’s my potted version:

The satisfaction theory of the atonement, as it has become known, was formulated by Anselm in his book, Cur Deus Homo, which  translates as ‘Why the God-Man?’) He has introduced the idea of satisfaction as the chief demand of the nature of God. In his view, God’s offended honour and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ.  According to this view, sin (as in this case, the Original Sin of Adam and Eve) incurs a debt to Divine justice, a debt that must be paid somehow. Because no sin, according to Anselm, can be forgiven without satisfaction, but in this case, the incurred debt is something far greater than a human being is capable of paying, the only way in which the satisfaction could be made was by the coming of a Redeemer who is both God and man. He himself would have to be sinless, thus having no debt that he owed. His death is something greater than all the sins of all humanity, and makes a superabundant satisfaction to God.

Which again is all very well, but doesn’t explain how Big G got himself into such a pickle in the first place. If the philosophers object to this, by the way, I suggest they do something more useful with their time, such as arguing about whether the grass outside is still green when it’s dark.

St Anselm’s contemporaries held that the transmission of original sin had to do with the lustful nature of the act of sexual intercourse. Anselm was the first thinker to separate original sin from the lust of intercourse. So that, at least, is something we can all thank him for. Or, as Tom Lehrer puts it, in Vatican Rag:

Get in line in that processional,

Slip into that small confessional

There a guy who’s got religion’ll

Tell you if your sin’s original

Next week, of course, contains St George’s Day, a day when shaven-headed pot-bellied bigots throughout England will bang on about how not being able to fly a flag with a red cross on a white background in honour of a Graeco-Roman alleged dragon slayer is somehow in breach of their “yooman” rights, and it’s a diabolical liberty; as if anybody is actually trying to stop them.  And it’s also the day when traditionally, you’re supposed to gather the dandelions to make your dandelion wine. If you can find any, under the snow. And it’s old Shakey’s birthday, to boot. Happy Bard-day to you, varlet!

Maybe it’ll get warmer, next week. This cold is killing my knees. Like Paul Simon, on a good day, I ain’t got no pain, but on a bad day, that’s when I want to lie in bed and think of things that might have been.  Can’t be done though. Got to get up there and at ‘em. There is much to be done. Lists must be made, fence posts must be ordered.   This last week, the one just gone, I get the feeling that, for all of the energy I expended, I might as well have just concentrated on fixing the door handle, and let the rest of it stew.  The nearer my destination, the more I keep slip sliding away, just like Anselm’s elusive ontological proof.  Still, we shall see. Cast your bread upon the waters and all that.  Meanwhile, I am going to try and think of something which is bigger than that which can be conceived. Such as a duck, with two legs both the same, or a very large elephant.  But then who created the elephant?


  1. Good to see you blogging again Steve. Or should that be 'read you blogging again'

  2. Thanks! I may have to give it a rest over the summer, but whenever I can carve oe out I'll post it.

  3. for some reason the "n" key isn't working properly!