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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Epiblog for the Feast of St Phocas

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. One of those weeks when stuff comes at you from all sides, and it’s a bit like the Chinese army in the Korean War, you mow down the first row of them but behind that there’s another, and another and another… when old Shakeyspoke said that troubles never come as single spies, but in battalions, he never spake a truer word, forsooth.

I had already accepted that this was going to be a shitnastic week from the very start, what with my accounts to finish off and books to lay out and the usual daily round of tedious things to attempt in the never ending process of putting and keeping the house in order; plus, it was the first week Debbie was back teaching “properly”, and thus for much of it I was thrown back on my own resources.

At least when you’re busy, time passes relatively quickly, and from the point of view of the weather, I wasn’t missing a great deal by not sitting outside, except possibly a bad dose of rust and mildew. Some of the nights during the middle part of the week were actually a bit chilly chilly nip nip, so much so that when I went to bed, instead of taking that as her cue to jump off and begin her nocturnal prowlings, Matilda actually snuggled down deeper into the nest of old jumpers and crocheted cat-blankets at the foot of my duvet, and began purring contentedly.  This meant I had to sort of insinuate my legs into the bed to one side of her, but on the plus side, at least she kept my feet warm.  She only stayed an hour or so each time, and in the morning she was wandering around in the kitchen, yowling for food as usual, presumably having spent the night next to the stove, but maybe she is becoming more socialised at last.

As far as bad weather is concerned, rain is water off a dog’s back to Misty, she doesn’t seem to mind getting wet through and frozen stiff. It must be those sheepdog genes kicking in. Deb’s been keeping to a fairly strict regime of walks with her, not so much for Misty’s benefit alone, but also for hers – she’s decided that, as she got fit while scrambling over the mountains of Arran this summer, she wants to keep it up, and she’s even talking about doing the Three Peaks challenge with Misty. What Misty thinks about this, remains unrecorded at present but she’s a good little dog when it comes to walking, and will go all day if asked.  Tiggy would have done the same, but Freddie would probably be looking at the small print in his contract to see if he can resign. With Misty, we are, after all, talking about the dog here that, after a 10.9 mile walk on Arran which included climbing Goatfell, nevertheless still wanted to play “stones” on the beach that night, when we got back to our campsite at Dougarie at 10PM.

One bright spot in an otherwise bleak week happened on Thursday teatime, when I was hammering away at my keyboard (trying to get caught up, as usual) and suddenly there came a frantic knocking at the door. As the road outside has got busier and busier over the seventeen years we’ve lived here, and there have been one or two nasty accidents, I sort of half expected to find some hapless victim on the doorstep, covered in blood and asking to use my mobile. Instead, it was a short, swarthy courier who looked a bit like a cross between Austin Powers and a hobbit, wearing a high-vis waistcoat. He thrust a small, heavy cardboard box into my hands.

“Zis for you. Yes.” It was a statement, not a question, so I accepted it, and asked if it needed to be signed for.  English was obviously not his first language but he did manage to fling back “No, is no problem” over his shoulder as he scuttled back down the ramp as fast as his furry little feet would take him.  Given the speed of his departure, it did occur briefly to me to check whether the box was ticking, but in fact no sound issued from within, so I can only assume that he was behind schedule, and had to get back to the Shire before the Orcs caught up with him.

The box, meanwhile, puzzled me. It could be the envelopes I was expecting, but it felt too heavy for that. Wielding my medieval-style dagger of a letter-opener I managed to hack my way into it, and found to my delight it was three jars of home-made produce from my cousin Freda, in Fintona, County Tyrone; plum and pecan conserve, apple and red tomato chutney, and honey, apple and lemon sauce.  Having subsequently sampled them all, I can report back that they were/are all delicious, and indeed so far I have tried the chutney on meals as various as pasta bake and cheese on toast. I also tried the chutney on some pongy French "Pied d’Anglepoise" cheese, and it was absolutely divine. Misty was begging for crumbs so I gave her the toast crust with a bit of the melted cheese still on it. “There’s so much fat in that, you’ll have to do seven laps of the cricket field to get rid of it!” I laughed, and Debbie cast a hard look in my direction: “Fifty laps for you, then!”

Anyway, the week ground on, as weeks tend to do these days, with more bad days than good, and we got to Friday, which was in itself an achievement. And at least Debbie wasn’t teaching that day, so she could at least take it relatively easily. The day took an uplift though, when I had an unexpected text from my sister to say that she and Gary, her husband, were coming back down country on their way home from being on holiday at Richmond-in-Swaledale and were we open for visitors? I texted back hurriedly to say we were, and they duly arrived about noon, together with Sophie the Labradoodle. The last time I had seen anything quite as big and woolly as Sophie, it was a new-born calf in a field at Jackson Bridge.  Sophie met Misty and Misty met Sophie, and Misty decided to jump up in the chair and hide behind Zak for safety, while Freddie snored resolutely on through it all.

Eventually, Debbie’s dad arrived to take Zak and Freddie out for their walkies and the house was suddenly 50% emptier of dogs.  It was great to see Mandy and Gary, and to meet Sophie, and sad that they only had time for a flying visit, as they had to get back down the M1 before the usual Friday afternoon clag started. As it was, it still took them a further five hours to get home. Nevertheless, before they went, tea was drunk, and the conversation ranged from the likely prospects of Northampton Town FC to the likely disposal of dead relatives (the saga of the Crem de la Crem is still going on – see previous blogs for details).  Still, it was an unexpected and pleasant break in the relentless working week.

When Granny decided that she had to go home, however, she discovered that she could no longer find her glasses. A search of the kitchen and the conservatory ensued but to no avail. Fortunately, she had a spare pair here, and wore those for driving home.  Later on, I noticed her glasses were in the fruit bowl on the conservatory table. So I sent her a text saying: YOUR GLASSES ARE IN THE FRUIT BOWL, which has to count as one of the strangest and most surreal texts I have ever sent. A couple of days later, she phoned to say she couldn’t find her handbag at home, so I suggested to Debbie that she should check the fruitbowl, a suggestion which was received rather ungratefully, if I may say so.

Later, we watched the BBC’s history of country music, which was slightly confusing for me because until that programme, I hadn’t realised that Garth Crooks and Garth Brooks were in fact two different people. I am afraid I have form for this sort of thing; for a long time I thought Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain were the same person. If I’d thought about it, I ought have wondered, I suppose, how Garth Brooks managed to finish a concert, black up and still have time to scurry round to the “Match of the Day” studio.

Debbie had decided to declare Saturday a holiday, it being the only day when we might have a prayer of going off for the day in the camper van and so we spent Friday night discussing where might be feasible, and looking at various weather forecasts on line. Unfortunately, despite the BBC’s weather forecast (often found filed under “fiction”) that “summer would make a reappearance” this weekend, in fact the weather was poo in the Lake District, poo over the Three Peaks, poo at Malham, and misty and murky with low cloud over Mam Tor, Kinder Scout, and Ladybower. Which didn’t leave a lot of choice, really. The best of the weather seemed to be in the Holme Valley, in fact, so we ended up with Deb and Misty going for a walk around Holmebridge and Brownhills Reservoir, ending up back at Wessenden, while I stayed here and got on with some (yet more) work.

I’ve not been paying much attention to the news from the world at large, it’s the usual mixture of horror and garbage, I suppose. The Director of Public Prosecutions suggested new guidelines for sentencing “benefit cheats” on Monday, with sentences of up to ten years. [This is more than some of the sentences currently handed out for things such as rape and manslaughter.] The next day, Channel 4 reported that the DPP had been awarding massive tax-free golden parachutes to staff who had left, once more leading me to ask who exactly are the cheats and scroungers here?

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been holding one of their massively irrelevant conferences, in Glasgow of all places, where they try and pretend they haven’t been propping up The Blight for the last three years and making it possible for them to continue their ceaseless war of attrition on the ill, the poor and the disadvantaged.  The Liberal Democrat angle is that, apparently, if it hadn’t been for them, the Tories would have been even worse, which sort of ignores the fact that, without the votes of the Lib Dems, the Tories wouldn’t have been able to do any of it! But even if it was true, it’s a bit like being mugged by two robbers only to have one of them turn round afterwards and say to you “You’re lucky I was here – without me helping him mug you, he might have killed you!”

We’re now entering the febrile, pre-election “phoney war” where both major parties [and the Liberal Democrats] will be making increasingly grandiose promises of free school meals, tax breaks, and a Polish plumber in every bathroom. Even the Labour Party has finally woken up to the meaning of the word “Opposition” and said they will repeal the Bedroom Tax. Despite this, I am afraid the next election will still be about which set of drongos we loathe the least, leavened with an unhealthy slug of racist xenophobia.

And, as if politics wasn’t bad enough, the most depressing story of the week was, for me, the news that the two guard dogs which had been assigned to The Duke of Cambridge while he was stationed at RAF Valley on Anglesey have been put down, now he has left the service. The MOD’s response to the shitstorm of criticism that erupted was that one of the dogs was ill and the other was too unstable to be re-homed, which sort of begs the question, for me, that if they were that bad, why were they being used as guard-dogs in the first place?

I never believe anything I read in the papers either way, these days, unless I have written it, but obviously the principle of Cui Bono applies (or should that be Cui Bonio in this case?) It is in the MOD’s interests, having been caught out, to make the most of the dogs' unsuitability. They were obviously considered suitable up to the point where HRH "retired". There are rescues I know of that would have taken on an aggressive dog and tried their best with it but obviously there's aggressive and aggressive, and nobody at the MOD is going to go against an official statement. I'd just like to be certain that every avenue was explored and I sincerely hope these dogs didn't just fall through the crack because somebody couldn't be arsed to go an extra mile. I have my doubts. RIP, Blade and Brus, and indeed RIP all the other unwanted strays in the pounds who have been put down this week as part of the 7,000 unwanted dogs a year that die needlessly in this damn unfeeling compassionless country of ours.

The only comedy in the news this weekend was provided, predictably enough, by UKIP, in the shape of the wonderfully named Godfrey Bloom, who, in the course of one single day at the UKIP conference, managed to a) thwack Channel 4 reporter Michael Crick over the head with a UKIP brochure because he asked Bloom why there were no black faces on the cover and b) suggest that all women who fail to clean behind the fridge are “sluts”. The word “slut” does actually have an original meaning of someone who is less than fastidious with the housework, and the more modern idea, of it being someone who helps out the prostitutes at busy times, has only been grafted on to it relatively recently. Sadly, however, Bloom’s defence that he meant it in the original definition only goes to show that the vocabulary (and therefore one may assume the attitudes) of UKIP are still stuck in the 1950s. I wonder if he calls the waitress over by banging his tankard on the table and shouting “Wench!” I’m afraid that UKIP is getting a bit like Oscar Wilde’s definition of ignorance as a “delicate, exotic fruit” – touch it, and the "bloom" is gone.  Mind you I suppose people found the Brownshirts comical, at first.

The news story that most caught my eye, though, was that scientists (or mathematicians, or both I’m not entirely sure) have discovered a thing called the Amplituhedron. Apparently it’s a major breakthrough in quantum physics and I have no idea exactly what it is or how it works, so I am quoting verbatim, here:

…the term amplituhedron describes a class of theoretical geometric object defined within an infinite-dimensional space known as the Grassmannian that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions of some quantum field theories. Amplituhedron theory challenges the notion that space-time locality and unitarity are necessary components of a model of particle interactions, as opposed to properties that emerge from some underlying phenomenon.

All got that? Good. The implications of this discovery are, apparently, apart from massively simplifying the business of computing particle interactions from hundreds of Feynman diagrams to one unified equation, that space and time may just be an illusion, something I [and many others] have long suspected. We’re sort of back to John Gribben now – yet again – where there is just this “thing” that is actually everything that ever was, is and shall be, and maybe that’s the amplituhedron.  Or – as Juliana of Norwich said back in 1338, about a small thing the size of a hazel nut which contained everything, shown to her by God in a mystical vision prefiguring this discovery by a few centuries;

And in þis he shewed me a lytil thyng þe quantite of a hasyl nott. lyeng in þe pawme of my hand as it had semed. and it was as rownde as eny ball. I loked þer upon wt þe eye of of my vnderstondyng. and I þought what may þis be. and it was answered generally thus. It is all þat is mad. I merueled howe it myght laste. for me þought it myght soden ly haue fall to nought for lytyllhed. & I was answered in my vnderstondyng. It lastyth & euer shall for god louyth it. and so hath all thyng his begynning by þe loue of god.

I shall be watching the development of the idea of the amplituhedron with great interest and very little comprehension.  So far, I have got Bob the wizard telling me “We are all one, and we are all contained in a point of light”, the Kabbala with its idea of “ain soph aour” or “limitless light” sparking off the whole universe, Juliana of Norwich and her hazel-nut, and now the Amplituhedron. One day they may all merge into focus with a single click of the kaleidoscope, and what we now see through a glass, darkly, we will see then, face to face.

And so we came to Sunday, and the Feast of St Phocas the Gardener. I must admit, once again, that St Phocas attracted me initially because of his extremely silly name. My only regret is that he has no apparent connection to the Scilly Isles, otherwise it would have been totally perfect for someone with a puerile sense of humour and hidden shallows, such as myself. Unfortunately, he came from a place with very little comic potential, Sinope, which is in present-day Turkey. Despite such a nondescript origin, he is now the patron saint of gardeners, sailors, hospitality, agricultural workers, boatmen, farm workers and field hands, gardeners, husbandmen, mariners, market-gardeners, sailors and watermen. Like most martyrs, Phocas is – regrettably - mainly famous for the manner of his death, which took place in 303AD.

His work, when he was alive, was cultivating a garden near the city gate of Sinope, combining the quiet and meditative nature of the work of cultivation with the exercise of daily prayer. He shared the fruits (and probably vegetables) of his labours with the poor, and offered shelter to travellers in the area who had no place to stay.

Needless to say, such largesse soon came to the notice of the authorities, in that particular area, the Romans, who were pagan. During the persecutions of Diocletian, it was probably not a good idea to stand out too much. In the manner of authorities the world over, they decided Phocas was too good to live, and decided to do him in. Soldiers were despatched to carry out the evil deed and, on nearing Sinope, they actually stopped at Phocas’s door, and accepted his offer of lodging, unaware that their host was the very man they had been sent to finish off; while at his table, they spoke openly of their mission. During the night, Phocas kept his vigil in prayer and even dug his own grave.  The next morning, he confessed to the soldiers that he was indeed the man they had been sent to kill. At first, ashamed by his humility and charity, they offered to go back and tell their superiors they had looked for Phocas, but could not find him, but in the end they gave in and beheaded him. It’s a striking story, and a more startling example of seizing the moral high ground you could not wish for. However, some scholars think it is actually a fusion of the lives of three men with the same improbable name: Phocas of Antioch, Phocas the Bishop of Sinope, and Phocas the Gardener.

Whatever the truth, St Phocas’s patronage of seafarers is marked in the custom of mariners to serve Phocas a portion of every meal; this was called "the portion of St. Phocas." This portion is paid for by one of the ship’s company and the price of it is given to the captain. When the ship comes into port, the money is distributed among the poor, in thanksgiving to their patron for a successful voyage. There is apparently a similar practice among sailors in the Black Sea of giving food offerings to an invisible supernatural entity known as the Klabautermann. St. Phocas is mentioned in W.H. Auden's poem, Horae Canonicae: Sext, where Auden describes the single-mindedness and concentration of someone who is a master of their art, whatever the art is: 

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.
To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines
of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray instead to St Phocas,
St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one's patron is,
that one may be worthy of their mystery

This is only a passing mention in a work which is really about the nature of concentration on single-mindedness, but nevertheless, it’s good to see old Phocas getting a mention, isn’t it?

The story of St Phocas fills me with a sort of vague dread that I would ever be put in a similar situation.  Like these stories that you hear of people who offer to take the place of terrorist hostages or who fling themselves in front of their family – or sometimes even complete strangers – to take the bullet that was meant for them.  In relatively modern times we have the example of St Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish Franciscan who provided shelter, like St Phocas, only in this case to refugees from the Nazis.

On 17th February 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 28th May of that year, he was transferred to Auschwitz.  In July 1941, three prisoners absconded, and by way of a reprisal the Nazi authorities picked 10 men at random to be starved to death in an underground bunker.  When one of the men begged for mercy, shouting out about his wife and children, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. In the bunker, Kolbe celebrated mass each day and whenever the guards checked on him they found him calmly regarding them. After a fortnight, he was the only survivor, so the guards hastened his death by injecting him with carbolic acid. The man whose life he saved lived on until 1995, surviving Auschwitz and, later, a spell in Sachsenhausen, and was present at Maximilian Kolbe’s canonisation.

How does one who professes to believe in the ideas of forgiveness and mercy even begin to relate to these stories?  If the Christian doctrine is to be believed, of course, these people are simply following the example, either consciously or unconsciously, of Jesus, who (metaphorically) took a bullet for all of us, though I still can’t work out why it had to happen that way.  And my faith – despite the odd flashes of reassurance - is nowhere near strong enough for me to choose consciously to die for a complete stranger.  Put us not to the test.  Suddenly we’re back in the territory of Masefield’s poem:

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races
So I trust too.

I suppose that if you have to accept that, if we each have the capacity within us to do extremely bad things if we’re cornered or the relevant buttons are pushed, then the same must apply that somewhere we have a spark of extreme good, a spark of that divine light, that can be tapped in mission-critcal cases; the soldier who throws himself on the hand grenade to save his comrades, or the pilot who stays at the controls of the doomed plane long enough to allow his comrades to parachute to safety or to avoid crashing on the school, or the fireman who rushes back into the burning building one time too many.  I also know that I very much doubt that I could ever do any of it, and I pray that I will never be asked to.

Meanwhile, my piddling little problems are, for me, sort of put into perspective by the last few paragraphs, I suppose. A bit of the side has fallen off my wheelchair. It just sheared off, coming away in my hand the other morning, so that will now need fixing. And this week marks the Equinox, so from now on it will get darker and colder, entering a long, scary three-month "tunnel" that will only end with the Winter Solstice and the start of the return of the light.  There is so much to do, almost all of it either stressful and/or boring, but at least nobody’s asking me to die in their place, I guess. There are no soldiers marching along the road outside, looking to carry out reprisals. Yet.

It’s warm and sunny in the garden, unexpectedly (those fictional weather forecasts with an unexpected twist at the end again) – in fact, the sun this afternoon is exactly the same colour as my cousin’s wonderful honey, lemon and apple chutney, so I think I am going to trundle out and take a look at some of my herbs, like old St Phocas, while it’s still light enough to do it.


  1. Wonderful mix of high comedy and tragedy. Love the bit about the hobbit courier.

  2. It truly was a weird exchange. I was like he couldn't wait to be rid of the parcel...

  3. Re Matilda becoming more socialised, be careful what you wish for.

    I have a rescue cat, Eartha, and for the first five years or so I would say wistfully, 'it's a pity she's not a lap cat', as she resolutely refused all blandishments in that direction.

    Then, one day, she discovered laps, and now I can barely put arse to chair before she's up there.

    Still, she makes a good book rest, and you get quite used to having no blood supply to your lower limbs.

    Have to be a bit careful getting up, mind, as sometimes both legs go numb and an inelegant sideways collapse can result.