It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. I know I say that every week, but this week it’s been especially true. Last Sunday, I woke up to the keening of gulls and the shushing of the waves breaking on the beach at Dougarie, beside Kilbrannan Sound, on the west coast of the Isle of Arran. From this (and from the absence of two weeks of Epiblogs) you will deduce that Debbie succeeded in her plan to declare a snap “second holiday” and whisk us all back there, for just over a week.
Was it worth it? Well, it was a quixotic gesture, and of course, in the limited time available, there wasn’t the opportunity to do all that she’d planned, but on the whole, yes, it probably was. The dogs enjoyed it, anyway. The downside was that, by spending something like 16 days of August, plus the last week of July, on Arran, I’d created a massive self-inflicted backlog of work, a fact that was rather weighing me down as the van droned steadily southwards, homewards, past Kilmarnock, Dumfries, Carlisle, Penrith, Preston, Manchester, and then home.
Deb had made good time in getting back – something like five and a half hours, plus dog-comfort stops – so we were actually back, after dropping off Freddie and Zak at their own house, in time to sit n the van and listen to The Archers in the driveway of our house, before commencing unloading, something which Matilda seemed to find extremely confusing, as she was pacing about next to the van, yowling for us to get out, go inside, and feed her.
The old home town looked the same, as the song has it. A few of the plants had been completely waterlogged, and it looks like we have lost the bergamot and the bronze fennel, in the herbs section, but otherwise we seemed to have escaped any great disasters. At least there was electricity. I lit the stove and fed the cat, making sure I got those two tasks the right way round, Deb went off to have a shower, and I cooked us some chip butties for tea, and that was more or less that.
Monday was a rude awakening. Deb was required at College for some of this pre-registration stuff that they expect everyone to pitch in with. I was rather sceptical about this beforehand, since they have cut her hours right back this year, but she did it anyway, to show willing, and came back that evening with the news that there may be some additional hours gong after all, so it was probably a good job that she made the effort to attend – right place, right time, that sort of thing. I said that we’d need every extra hour they could cram in. I’m not sure why, I must have had a premonition.
Matilda seemed pleased enough to see us back, although now she is going in and out of her own catflap, and coming and going more or less as she pleases, her contact with us is very much on her terms, not ours, and usually involves feeding time or snuggling up on the foot of my bed. Doubtless that will change as the days grow colder, wetter and rainier. Misty seems to have accepted her return to the comforts of home, and taken it in her stride, though I am sure for the first few days she was wondering where the beach had gone, and why there was no-one willing to play “stones” with her.
Meanwhile, I was bashing on with getting together the figures for 2012’s accounts, the most urgent of the many urgent tasks on my list, in view of the fact that Companies House would fine me if I didn’t file before the deadline. Debbie had a training day on Tuesday at Dewsbury, so Misty and I spent a thoroughly exciting day snoozing (her, and occasionally me) and punching numbers into spreadsheets (sadly, just me). Deb was back at teatime, and, later that night, going out to fetch something she’d left in the vehicle, came back in and reported that the camper van was sitting in the driveway in a massive pool of its own oil. Fantastic. Just what we needed. Another massive bill, a torpedo in the financial engine-room. It was too dark by then to look at the problem overnight, so we decided to re-assess it in the morning.
Morning came, as mornings do, and the light of day confirmed that we had indeed got our own miniature version of the Exxon Valdes disaster going on at the front of the house. There was nothing for it but to phone the garage. Clearly it would be inadvisable to try and start the van up without any oil in the engine, so they would have to come to us. Which they did, confirming the melancholy news that the actuator on the turbo – a part that cost approximately £30, had seized in the “on” position, causing a build-up of pressure inside the engine that had actually blown a hole right through the casing of the end-housing, spraying oil all over the drive. Given the drastic, indeed catastrophic, nature of the fault, I suppose we should be grateful that the faithful old camper got us all home from Scotland (and Debbie back safely from Dewsbury) before it decided to blow up. Had it gone half way up Glen Chalmadale, or on the String Road, we’d have had no option but to be towed home there and then.
But it is still a massive hassle, and preoccupied me for much of the remainder of the week. Well, that and last year’s accounts, which were probably just as big a disaster, albeit not so messy. The garage man brought a massive can of oil with him, topped up the level in the engine with as much as he could cram in, and then set off to try and get to the garage before it all came out of the bottom. He just made it, apparently. As it stands at the moment, we’re still waiting on a final total, but if the camper is to be saved, it will be at a considerable cost, which will have repercussions on our hand-to-mouth existence for months to come.
Still, at least we are better off than the Syrians. Once again, it seems that as soon as we go away on holiday, and I take my eye off the ball, the world goes completely gaga. On a purely practical level, I fail to see how lobbing in a few more bombs from outside into that strife-torn country, and killing a few more Syrians, will prevent Syrians from killing Syrians. What it needs is for the UN, for once, to live up to its name and its purpose, and to impose a cease-fire on all sides so that humanitarian aid can be administered. Even allowing for the questionable premise that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack being true (why would he, though, when he was winning already and mindful that if he used chemical munitions, it would only complicate and delay his eventual victory over the rebels?) if the US simply joins in on the side of the rebels and removes one set of vicious unprincipled murdering bastards with another set who are slightly more amenable to the USA, that is merely repeating the same mistake we, the west, have made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt. How many more dead children, how many more wild-eyed young zealots in suicide vests, how many more body-bags, how many more flag-draped coffins being carried down the loading-ramp of a Hercules on the tarmac at Brize Norton will it take, before we acknowledge this? The simple fact is that intervening on one side or the other does not save lives, it simply determines which set of innocent civilians will be butchered – “ours”, or “theirs.”
Vladmir Putin is not someone I would have immediately thought of as the voice of reason, but he has enunciated exactly the same concerns. I am not naïve enough to think that he has the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, as his regime, too, has been fuelling the conflict with arms and materiel on the side of the Assad regime. But nevertheless, the question still stands – why would President Assad use chemical weapons, when it was contrary to his own best interests to do so, and the fact that Vladimir Putin is a homophobic little weasel, undemocratically “elected” under questionable circumstances and comes from a background in state-sponsored torture, terror and repression, doesn’t make the question itself any less valid.
The Russians, of course, have seized on parliament’s refusal to let Cameron blindly follow Obama in bombing the shit out of Syria as evidence of Britain’s diminished standing and general unimportance in the world. This totally ignores the irony that it is precisely this sort of democratic control over the excessive exercise of brutal, despotic power that makes us (still, just, on a good day) the good guys, or at least better than the Russians. What would happen if the Russian parliament voted against Putin’s desire to (for instance) bomb Chechnya? A one-way trip to the Gulag, and a bullet in the back of the head for anyone entering the “No” lobby, that’s what. It’s a bit rich being pulled down by a country where thieves can break into the Kremlin and steal next year’s election results. We may have invented the neatly-furled brolly, but it took the KGB to stick a poison needle in the end of the ferrule. We have Jimmy Choo, they have Rosa Klebb. I could go on. I frequently do.
Britain may well have declined since the days when Britannia ruled the waves – for all sorts of reasons, and in some ways it isn’t a bad thing. Having said that, even though successive governments seem to have gone out of their way over the last 25 years or so to trash the economy for reasons of party politics and economic illiteracy, and to limit our own personal freedoms, and even though our great institutions of health and education are currently under pressure like never before, we don’t yet have millions of people starving while our corrupt rulers export all the grain, and we don’t yet have the situation where anyone who criticises the government is denounced and taken away in the middle of the night by a goon squad from the secret police. Assuming you can afford a new car, you can go out and buy one, you don’t have to wait four years for it to turn up, only to find that when it does, it’s a brown Lada with a cracked headlight and two square wheels. Not quite. Not yet.
I don’t want to get into the battle of literature and culture that David Cameron started in his speech; a country’s culture is a product of that country’s history and ethos. And while it’s tempting to say that all Russian plays are long, dreary, gloomy sagas about the family cherry orchard being sold off and given to an anarcho-syndicalist collective of local peasants, English literature also has some spectacularly depressing moments. What Cameron should have said was that we still (just about, on a good day) believe in democracy, fair play and equal opportunities for everyone, the rule of the law, respect and care for the ill and vulnerable, and sympathy for the underdog. He’d have been lying, in his case, of course, because his lips would have been moving, and that's how you tell when a politician is lying. But the sentiment is still valid, even if insincerely expressed, and all of those salient virtues are absent from Russian society. Anyway, that’s enough about the bloody Russians. They should wind their neck in, and stick to what they are good at: The Song of the Vulgar Boatmen and Samovar over the Rainbow.
Meanwhile, here in the Holme Valley, summer is coming to an end. I’ve noticed a couple of times the “early nip of changeful autumn” has been present in the air, and the other day it was so dark at 5.30pm that I thought I’d fallen asleep and the clock had stopped. There’s a lot to do in the garden, as well, before winter sets in properly. The stove will need an overhaul, and I will need to order some coal next week, the first order of the autumn. It also needs a new set of front bars, and a new riddling-plate, since the old one has broken into two halves and is now only back in place because I had to let the fire go out so I could wedge the two bits side-by-side back into the hole.
So that’s another task on my already-burgeoning “to-do” list, which also includes, now I am back at what passes for my desk, dealing with all the tedious paperwork of progressing the exhumation of the ashes of various family members buried under a “memorial tree” in the Northern Cemetery in Hull. Still, after five days of my life which I won’t get back, doing year-end accounts and struggling with exploding vehicles, fixing the stove and clearing out the ashes sounds positively enthralling – even though it is actually two tasks, and not one, as you might think if you casually read that last sentence back.
And so we come to Sunday, and the feast of St Disibod. I must admit, there were other saints whose feast days also fall upon 8th September, whom I might just as easily have chosen, but I had to pick St Disibod, if only for his extremely silly name. Mind you, in 619AD when he was born, it was probably as sensible as Wayne or Kyle today. Actually, maybe they’re not very good examples… Still, Disibod, also known as Disen, or Disibode, was an Irish bishop who died in 700AD. He was unsuccessful as a missionary in his native Ireland, so moved to Germany, where he founded a monastery on a hill near Bingen, which became known as Disibodenberg. Unsurprisingly, as that translates back into English as “the hill of Disibod”. No less a personage than St Hildegard of Bingen came to live there in due course, and, around 1170AD, composed a life of St Disibod which is still the prime source of what little knowledge we have of him.
According to Hildegard’s Life, Disibod came to the Frankish Empire in 640AD as a missionary, accompanied by his followers Giswald, Clemens and Sallust, which I have to say sounds for all the world like a firm of accountants. They were active in the Vosges and Ardennes, until, guided by a dream, Disibod built a cell at the confluence of the rivers Nahe and Glan, the location of the later monastery of Disibodenberg.
Hildegard of Bingen, with her ecstatic visions, her music and her writings, is worthy of an Epiblog all of her very own. Her association with the Disibodenberg had ended in 1147AD, when she took a decision, with 18 of her acolytes, to move to a new site and founded the monastery at Rupertsberg. The Disibodenberg site remained in the hands of the Cistercian Order until 1559, when a decline set in, and by the 18th Century, only the ruins of the original foundation remained. The site is currently owned privately by Ehrengard, Baroness of Racknitz, who has established an international foundation to preserve and protect the ruins which you can apparently look around, for a fee of five Euros. There is also a winery. It sounds like my kind of place, and if I ever do make my long promised/threatened pilgrimage to Germany in search of my lost half-brother, I must include it on my itinerary, provided can get some mug to push my wheelchair up the “berg” part of the journey.
As far as my own spiritual development is concerned, such as it is, I suppose a Sunday teatime on a day in early autumn, when the nights are starting to draw in, and I have just dumped another shovelful of coal on the fire, is as good a time as any to stop and take stock. When I wasn’t looking out at the mountains and the sky and the sea, or watching in the short summer night they have in that part of the world for the comforting gleam of the red can buoy at Carradale Point across the Sound, I spent a considerable amount of time reading Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. I am not going to spend the rest of this blog doing a sort of “I. A. Richards practical criticism” on it, but it is a book which – though dated in part, especially in its language on issues such as homosexuality and marriage – is an excellent discourse on some of the knottier problems of theology and belief that have occupied me for many a weary night of “blear-eyed midnight toil”. Especially since it was written n 1942, at the height of the Second World War, in part to explain what it is we were “fighting for”, itself a concept with which I struggle. I had read extracts from it before, in fact, I have included extracts of it previously in this blog, but reading it from the start, in order, with few or no distractions to stop me half way down the page and make me lose the thread, was a help to me, though I am still none the wiser on the difference between begetting and creating.
One passage stood out for me, though, as I watched the slow pageant of clouds over the Mull of Kintyre, or the wheeling arc of a seagull out over the waves, or the eternal granite immobility of the hills of northern Arran – Goatfell, Beinn Nuis, Beinn Tarsuinn, Cir Mhor, et al – and it was this, on the difference between the Christian God, who is outside of the world, and the beliefs of pantheism:
“Pantheists usually believe that God, so to speak, animates the universe as you animate your body: that the universe almost is God, so that if it did not exist He would not exist either, and anything you find in the universe is a part of God. The Christian idea is quite different. They think God invented and made the universe – like a man making a picture or composing a tune. A painter is not a picture, and he does not die if his picture is destroyed. You may say, ‘He’s put a lot of himself into it,’ but you only mean that all its beauty and interest has come out of his head. His skill is not in the picture in the same way that it is in his head, or even in his hands.”
I found myself thinking that the idea of God “animating the entire universe” that phrase he uses, is almost exactly what I believe, how it happens for me, in those times when I believe that Big G is actually there at all. And by “there”, I suppose I do mean here, there and everywhere, by definition, with apologies to Lennon and McCartney. So, if I have to be anything, maybe this means I am a lapsed agnostic violent Quaker pantheist, strictly chapel of rest. But of course that’s a lot easier to believe on a day when you are appreciating the beauty and majesty of the summer sky over the Scottish landscape.
Such a moment happened for me two weeks ago, at Lochranza, as I looked across the bay and saw a perfectly “ordinary” stand of trees transformed by just the way the sun fell on the verdant grass behind them at that very moment, with the light dancing on the water in front. I thought then, what a glade to be buried in, what a place for your last rest on earth, where the deer come and browse, and the sheep nibble the grass, and the birds sing in the branches overhead. "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..." Then, as I continued to watch, the light changed, the sun slanted the shadows differently, the effect passed, and time began to tick once more. I am not stupid or naïve about belief, however – if my pantheism holds true, it must also embrace the Dies Irae, the wrath of a God, in the teeth of a howling winter gale, a blizzard, or a violent storm at sea.
What the pantheist view of Big G does do, is to remove the idea of the old guy with a beard sitting up there somewhere beyond the clouds on a throne, judging the quick and the dead. It makes morality your own decision, your own responsibility, though, interestingly enough, Lewis had an angle on that which I had not previously considered, which is that he posits the existence of an accepted and mutually agreed standard of “good” or “correct” behaviour from which we may deviate, or fail to reach, but which everyone agrees is nevertheless there. He links this to God, and there is perhaps something in the Platonist or Neo-Platonist view that this is the spark of God the good in us all, down here in this fallen world, to which we must hark back. I think, however, that the “harking back” is not such a simple black and white process, and that morality consists sometimes of shades of grey (but not, you will be pleased to know, Fifty Shades of Grey).
Anyway, I have been admonished before now by “real” philosophers who read this blog and tell me not to worry my ugly old head with such matters, as I am not properly trained to deal with them, so I will shut up and leave it at that. I haven’t forgotten my idea of doing a “something” with what remains of my life, but my first responsibility s to pay my debts and keep everything going.
So, I am back at my desk, back at the plough, back at the wheel, nose to the grindstone, use whatever cliché you find most apposite. When I think about the massive, oppressive amount of work I have to do between now and Christmas it is very easy to become dispirited, so next week am going to try and carry with me in my heart, into the cold days ahead, the probably theologically questionable but still warm, peaceful and nurturing feeling of the spirit of… something… suffusing all nature:
“Oh chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole;
Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,
How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”
And if it helps, I offer this as a consolation to you too. As Robert Zimmerframe once memorably said, "I'll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours."