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

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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Epiblog for Michaelmas

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley, but at least we’ve made some progress.  The weather’s been quite warm, as well, and we’ve even seen some sunshine, to be treasured and savoured like the last drops of a particularly expensive and fine dessert wine, as we won’t have much more of it this year.  It’s a shame, really, that there wasn’t some way of automatically declaring a holiday and going off somewhere in the camper van, but both Debbie and I have responsibilities to fulfil, tiresome as it is.

So, this week, I have been largely reduced once again to watching the sun outside rather than basking in it.  Meanwhile Debbie has been trundling back and forth between college and outreach centres, but at least nothing else has fallen off the camper (yet).

Matilda’s been taking full advantage of the last bloom of summer, wandering around on the decking and coming in and out through her cat flap.  Come the evening, though, when the dark starts drawing in (and it’s getting earlier now, day by day) and it starts to get cooler, she can always be found curled up in a jumble of cat blankets, on the foot of my bed.  Next week, she’s due to go back to the vet for her annual jabs. I can’t believe that we’ve had her a year, but we have. A year and three weeks, in fact. The years get shorter as you get older, proof, if any were needed, that all time is entirely subjective.

Misty, meanwhile, continues to entertain and amuse. Debbie’s plan to tire her out by taking her on longer walks doesn’t seem to be working, I am afraid.  She’s quite capable of doing a ten mile walk and still coming back home from it with enough surplus energy to run a small power station, which is more than you can say for Debbie.

She still insists on asserting her dominance over Zak in the pack order by sitting on him at every opportunity. Poor old Zak settles down with a heavy sigh and accepts his fate, or eventually gets off the chair and lies on the dog bed instead.  Freddie, meanwhile, sleeps through it all.  Misty’s also got this strange habit of flattening out the cushions before she flops down on them, and on Saturday night, she managed to fold the dog bed over twice before sitting on it. Debbie reckons that we ought to be able to harness this quest for neatness and folding, by training Misty up to carry out a wide range of domestic duties. I have actually read, on a Border Collie training web site, of an owner who trained his dog to go around the house picking up discarded laundry and putting it in the laundry basket, but I suspect that, with Misty, you might not get your own knickers back. Which could, of course, be an adventure in itself.

As a borderline collie capable of committing completely random acts of unexplained stupidity, Misty at least ensures that life is never predictable. For some reason, on Thursday, she seemed to want to investigate Colin’s side of the house every fifteen minutes, and I got tired of calling her back. Something was obviously spooking her in the kitchen, but I couldn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Anyway, I got fed up of calling her back, so I decided to go and investigate. I trundled my wheelchair through the connecting door and found her in Colin’s front room, with, to my surprise, no signs of her having caused any obvious chaos, apart from her having eaten Matilda’s cat food.

So I turfed her out, and she disappeared back through the connecting door. Because we were/are in the process of doing up the house, a process which has been grievously delayed by my illness, but is still proceeding, albeit at a glacial place, there are numerous places where DIY stuff is just sort of “dumped” all around the house.  One of these is a spare door, which is due to go on upstairs somewhere, but which at the moment is just propped up on our side of the door through to Colin’s. Unfortunately, on coming back into this side of the house, Misty dislodged it somehow, and it fell at 45 degrees across the open doorway, neatly trapping me next door. 

My mobile was on charge in the kitchen, so summoning help was out of the question. Not that there was anyone to sumo, especially. My first attempt to shift the rogue door on my own confirmed to me that it was too heavy, so I resigned myself to an afternoon’s captivity until Debbie came home at teatime to rescue me.  However, eventually, by taking the tray off the front of my wheelchair and sort of bending forwards, wedging my upper half under the door, I was able to shift its weight and stand it back up again, freeing myself.  I trundled back into the kitchen, and Misty lifted a quizzical eyebrow at me as much as to say “What kept you?”

All too soon, it was Friday, but this week, Friday wasn’t a cause for panic about office work left undone, but instead a cause for celebration, because Owen was coming to help us with some more work on the house.  My energy levels were pretty low, and I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to be as much help as I normally am, even though that is never much help to start with. Fortunately Owen was more than able to compensate for my lack of va-va-voom, and by the end of Friday the door catch had been fixed, the stove had two new firebricks, a new baffle plate, a new riddling grate, and a new door glass, and was already showing signs of increased efficiency; the gaps between the boiler pipes down behind the stud wall in the kitchen had been filled in with plaster, and the errant wall socket mounted on the MDF cladding.  Owen called it a day at that, and I cooked a meal for us all, accompanied by a bottle of beer or two, which we consumed sitting convivially around the refurbished stove.

On Saturday we followed it up by tidying the back downstairs room in Colin’s, where my bed is, doing a quadripartite division of the contents into four categories: keep, skip, charity shop, and Ebay. In between times, we discussed anything and everything, as we always do when we get together, ranging from how local authorities make methane out of landfill to why the electricity companies are getting away with highway robbery, and the dual language road signs in Wales, to name but a few. I didn’t learn until after he’d left for home on Saturday, that, on the latter score, there is apparently a proposal to rename the Welsh village of Varteg, up the valley from Pontypool, “Farteg”, because there is historically no letter “v” in the ancient Welsh alphabet. I really do hope they get that one adopted,  so it can join the short but select list of places such as Twatt, in the Orkneys, Condom, in France, Intercourse, Pennsylvania, and that village in Austria whose name won’t get past Blogger’s profanity filter, as locations where young men flock to have amusing photographs taken by their friends.

Meanwhile, a fashion show in Paris, hosted by one Nina Ricci, who I must confess I have never heard of, was invaded by two women from the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN, who mounted the catwalk (one of them was punched by one of the models, who must have had an extra stick of celery that morning, to raise the energy - anyway, sisterhood is powerful, I guess.)

Having been evicted from the event, they then decided to extend further the cause of feminism and oppose the objectification of women by posing topless outside the building, for a group of (exclusively male) photographers. Is it just me, or am I missing some irony here? Nope? Just me, then.

The outside world’s news hasn’t impinged much on the Holme Valley, to be honest. But I did want to clarify what I wrote last week about martyrdom, especially in the aftermath of the Kenyan shopping mall massacre, by people who would probably describe themselves as “martyrs” – wrongly, in my opinion. To my mind, martyrdom is a specific and narrow instance whereby you lose your own life for your beliefs, and no one else is harmed.  So, in that sense, the song I used to finish off last week’s posting, The Ballad of Jean Desprez (which is actually a first world war poem by Robert Service, set to music by Country Joe MacDonald, of all people) wasn’t a very good illustration of martyrdom, since, although at the end he ensures his own certain death, he does so by shooting the German officer, which, in martyrdom terms, is a case of “close, but no cigar.” It’s still a good song, though.

There have been a lot of people rushing to condemn religion as a whole in the wake of the Kenyan atrocity; personally, I think blaming “religion” – such a wide term as to be meaningless – is like blaming the National Trust for Scotland because people occasionally fall off Ben Nevis.  The point is that the people who go up mountains and fall off them to their deaths are frequently there in circumstances where they have been advised not to go into the hills that day, in the same way as the people who kill other people for belonging to the “wrong” religion or the “wrong” God, are doing so despite the advice of their own holy book’s teaching. Or to put it another way, Al-Shabaab or whatever they are called have about as much to do with the religion of Islam as the Westboro Baptist Church has to do with Christianity. 

The problem is not religion per se, but people cherry-picking, taking “religion” or “religious” ideas and warping them to justify violence, often for ends which are actually, and actively, political, but it is easier for the mad mullahs to whip up a frenzy of support by threatening impressionable followers under the pretext of compliance being something connected with their religious duty.  And we, of course, contribute to this frenzy by invading their countries and bombing them, abroad, and at home, by the media, whenever they need a “Muslim” comment on anything, making sure they seek out the most extreme, fundamentalist, wingnut, someone who is already two stops past Barking and well on the way to Stratford-Atte-Bow, and presenting them as if they are “the voice of the Muslim community”.

So, the outside world is a mad, random, depressing place. No change there, then. I was also a sad place this week, because we lost another ally, acquaintance and even, yes, friend, although I never met the bloke. Bob is dead. No, not Bob the Wizard, though this Bob of whom I speak was, in his own way, a wizard, conjuring spells out of pixels and machine code, to bring about marvels and help create the Mustardland message board, hosted by Peet, to which many people migrated when the BBC mistakenly and stupidly shut down its own version of it.  The tributes to Bob and his work stood at eight pages, last time I looked, and no doubt more will have been posted by today. It’s a strange idea, feeling sorry for the death of someone you never met in person and never really knew, but it’s entirely symptomatic of our age – an age when I learned of the death of one of my distant cousins by text message.  I said something to the effect of I could imagine Bob crossing over into geek heaven and being greeted with an enormous “Windows Fanfare” along the lines of Bunyan, where Pilgrim crosses over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.  I was corrected by someone who pointed out that it would have been for Bob, an Ubuntu fanfare, which would indeed have been much more fitting.

And so we came to Sunday, and Michaelmas, or the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. It’s also the feast of St Grimoaldus and of St Hripsime, both of whom I briefly toyed with and rejected, despite their silly names. Nothing much is known about Grimoaldus and Hripsime was yet another victim of the Roman persecutions and was roasted alive then had her tongue cut out. I think we’ve done enough on martyrdom for the time being. St Michael was victorious in defeating the rebellious angels and throwing Lucifer out of Heaven. As for the spiritual stuff this week, I am not sure I buy into the concept of a war in Heaven, other than symbolically. The problem for me has always been that if Big G is the essence of goodness, all knowing and all-powerful, a) how did evil occur in Heaven and b) how come God didn’t hear of it and squish it?  I realise that the idea of St Michael leading an army of victorious angels and winning a battle is an allegorical concept, stemming from the medieval view of the world of Heaven mirroring the earthly world, with the same sort of ranks, divisions, thrones, principalities, and powers. But I still struggle with the theology behind it. I suppose a theologian might say that if God is to encompass everything, then by definition that must also include evil, because if God didn’t include evil, then by definition again, he/she/it wouldn’t be omnipotent and wouldn’t be God.  It is the speck of grit in the oyster that leads ultimately to the “pearl pleasaunt to prince’s paye”.

Also, as I think I may even have said before, “good” and “evil” are concepts viewed from a human perspective, which is not necessarily God’s perspective. An entity which is capable of taking on itself the sins of the world, outside time for all eternity, may well have different and unknowable aims and objectives to those by which we govern our own lives and judge ourselves and others. Putting it bluntly, God may find it perfectly morally acceptable to sweep away thousands of people n a Tsunami, for reasons completely lost on us.  Indeed, if God is in fact an infinite amplituhedron pulsing away behind everything that ever was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen, then the concept of reason (as we conceive it) itself may well be alien to God.  Does this mean that, because God may do “bad” things for no “reason” that God itself is bad? Who judges God? It’s not as if there’s an independent regulator called Godsted.

Anyway, Michaelmas is technically the Feast of St Michael, who is the patron saint of grocers, mariners, paratroopers, police, chivalric knights, and sick people, but, strangely enough, not men’s underwear.  As a “quarter day” (corresponding to “Lady Day” on 25 March)  it was also the beginning and the end of the husbandman’s year, the time when the bailiff or the reeve went round the tenant farmers and collected their rents; a time for getting in the last of the harvest, battening down the hatches, and looking forward to winter. The last sheaves would be gathered into a corn dolly, which would be kept carefully through the dark, cold weeks ahead, and then ploughed under again in the new year, giving it back to the land which bore it, in order to maintain continuity of the crops.   The grain was stored in granaries, the fish was salted away, ready for winter, the Equinox had been and gone, and days were getting shorter.

Fairs were held at Michaelmas, and a “stubble-goose” was often roasted – the “stubble” in the name referring to their being stubble-fed at the end of harvest.  Sometimes, a goose would also be offered in part-payment of, or even in lieu of, rent, if cash was in short supply. Other traditions link the eating of Michaelmas geese to the fact that Good Queen Bess was allegedly eating roast goose when the welcome news arrived of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and thus it became a tradition of rejoicing. As Gascoyne wrote in 1575:

"And when the tenauntes come
    to paie their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowle at Midsummer,
    a dish of fish in Lent,
"At Christmasse a capon,
    at Michaelmasse A goose,
And somewhat else at New-yeres tide,
    for feare their lease flie loose."

The historian Blount is quoted, in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, as saying:

that "goose-intentos" is a word used in Lancashire, where "the husbandmen claim it as a due to have a goose intentos on the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; which custom took origin from the last word of the old church-prayer of that day: 'Tua, now quæsumus, Domine, gratia semper præveniat et sequitur; ac bonis operibus jugiter præstet esse intentos.' The common people very humorously mistake it for a goose with ten toes."

I guess you really had to be there.  Ginger was also a popular spice to be incorporated in recipes around Michaelmas – I suppose it makes sense to try and warm yourself up a bit, before winter proper sets in. On the Isle of Skye, the Michaelmas custom used to be to process through the villages, and each family would bake a particularly large Michaelmas loaf, full of additional ingredients, called a “Michaelmas Bannock”, and everyone in the house that night, be they family or visitor, was obliged to partake of it.

Many of these traditions and customs have fallen out of use, though the word “Michaelmas” also survives in the names of University and Law terms, in the elections of local government officers, and in Michaelmas daisies (Aster Tradescanti).  Old Michaelmas (because of the vagaries of changes in the calendars over the years) used to be celebrated on October 11th, after which day you were no longer supposed to pick blackberry bushes. This is because, by tradition, when there was war in heaven and St Michael and his army of archangels defeated Lucifer and cast him out, he fell to earth on October 11th and landed in a bramble-bush, cursing it. [The Yorkshire tradition says he spat on all the brambles, while in Cornwall, he is said to have peed on them. Take your pick. Or pick your own, as the sign says. ]

Milton seems to think it was summer when Lucifer was chucked out of heaven, in Paradise Lost, though, and let’s face it, he should know:

thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o're the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,

In Kidderminster, Worcestershire, there was a Michaelmas tradition called “The Lawless Hour” where a bell rang, following the election of the local dignitaries for the year, and, for the following hour, people were free to roam the streets and pelt each other, and the said dignitaries, during their procession, with cabbage-stalks and apples. I’d quite like to see that one brought back, actually. Meanwhile, in Bishop’s Stortford, Old Michaelmas Day (see above) was celebrated as “Ganging Day”, another excuse to indulge in public mayhem, here described in a newspaper report dating from 1787:

"On the morning of this day, called Ganging-day, a great number of young men assemble in the fields, when a very active fellow is nominated the leader. This person they are bound to follow, who, for the sake of diversion, generally chooses the route through ponds, ditches, and places of difficult passage. Every person they meet is bumped, male or female; which is performed by two other persons taking them up by their arms, and swinging them against each other. The women in general keep at home at this period, except those of less scrupulous character, who, for the sake of partaking of a gallon of ale and a plumb-cake, which every landlord or publican is obliged to furnish the revellers with, generally spend the best part of the night in the fields, if the weather is fair; it being strictly according to ancient usage not to partake of the cheer any where else."

I’ve been to Bishop’s Stortford. There isn’t much to do there, which probably explains it. Actually, it occurs to me that some of these ancient customs, particularly the ones mixing alcohol, disorder and rowdiness, these days now take place every Friday night in most town centre precincts.  Some towns had specific “hiring fairs” where farm workers would gather to seek employment for the coming year. At Sturbridge Fair, on the outskirts of Cambridge, a leather glove, six feet tall and filled with cotton and wood chips, was hoisted aloft to mark the fact that King John had granted permission for the event to take place in 1211. The glove being a symbol of the handshake of trust. These hiring fairs were called “Mop” fairs in the Midlands, because of the Midlands dialect word for a “tuft” – a Mop. Prospective employees would wear about their person a tuft or “mop” to show their particular skills, so that would-be employers could find the trade they were seeking at a glance – shepherds sported a tuft of wool, thatchers, some strands of straw, carters, a tuft of whipcord, and so on. These are the types of events which Hardy captured so well in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd.

I wonder what my “Mop” would be? A quill stuck in my lapel, I suppose, or a bit of paper. Not that it’s anything but academic. In the nineteenth-century, in my condition, I’d probably have been carted off to the workhouse or the asylum, as a Pauper Lunatic, and – given that it’s the Tory party conference, next week, I fully expect them to announce they are bringing that policy back if they win the next election.

Meanwhile, next week for me will be yet more of the same, albeit in a slightly more amenable habitat, thanks once again to the tireless work of Owen, who has been a true friend to us.  There’s still some hatch-battening to be done, and all the usual stuff as well, but we’ll see where we get to. We can only do what we can do. 

It’s a time for balancing and squaring up, clearing up and setting straight, and getting ready for the challenges of winter. But it’s also a time when we might have a couple more warm days, maybe to sit and sip some cider in the sun, catching its light in the glass.  It’s a time for Misty when she can walk with Deb on blowy days beside the reservoir under lowering skies, which is where she is right now. Or, more likely, they’ll be on their way back home. It’s getting to dusk, so I had better go and put the kettle on, and add some more coal to the stove, then I suppose it’ll be time to decide on what we’re having for tea.  All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.

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