It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The weather continues its downhill slide, although yesterday and this morning started out sunny, and for the moment the air temperature seems to have lost some of its bite from earlier, but, sadly, I fear this is only a temporary remission, before Autumn starts its ravings again next week. "A soft day, at last". I might do some more re-potting, after I’ve posted this blog, although it does look as though we’ve had some more casualties among the outdoor herbs, the Feverfew has shrivelled and turned brown – whether this is terminal, or just winter dieback, I will have to investigate further. And something seems to be munching the Soapwort on a regular nocturnal basis, so that will need addressing as well.
Matilda is another nocturnal muncher. With Zak and Freddie staying here, I’ve taken to feeding her next door. It was bad enough for her when she had to compete with one just canine gannet hoovering up her Felix before she had chance to even taste a morsel, but three of them would be the equivalent of a crash weight-loss diet for her, and while she is a bit of a porker, as cats go, and it probably wouldn’t hurt her to skip the odd meal, I don’t like to think of her going hungry. Consequently, I am now frequently disturbed by the sound of her chomping her way through the contents of her food dish at 3AM, which seems to be her favourite time of the day to take on board fresh nourishment. If you don’t believe a cat can eat loudly and enthusiastically enough to wake a sleeping human, you are welcome to come and try it.
She’s also taken to trying to open the inner door that leads to the cat flap, also in the early hours, by burrowing underneath it. (Following the advice of the Cats’ Protection League, we shut her in at night. Matilda disagrees and tries to open the door in the same way that she does the bifold doors. Unfortunately her technique doesn’t work for any door that actually has a handle and a catch, but it doesn’t stop her trying.)
Misty revels in the company of Zak, and frequently sits on him when he is in her favourite chair, as if he wasn’t there at all, until he gets fed up and, with a heavy sigh, extricates himself from underneath her and goes and lies on the dog bed on the floor. Together with Freddie, the three of them have formed a sort of mini-wolf pack, and this morning I heard a distant rumbling, which was three dogs barrelling down the stairs on Colin’s side, followed by them erupting through the bifold doors and into the kitchen, then streaming through the conservatory and out into the garden, via the door I’d left open for Matilda, earlier on. I felt like a spectator of the Wild Hunt, streaming across Richmond Park in pursuit of a spectral Herne the Hunter.
In fact, if anything, the animals have probably had the best of it this week, followed by Debbie, who is looking forward to half-term, and then me, trailing along in the rear, grappling with the same knot of 14 intractable problems day after day. The Portuguese edition of Gez’s book The Spot on My Bum looks as though it’s going ahead, although the contract which has come back from the company in the Azores is completely different to the one we sent them, and is also incomprehensible, being in Portuguese. What I need is a free bilingual solicitor, and while I’m at it, how about someone to pay for me to go out to the Azores for a couple of months to sort it all out. Oh, and a Ferrari, and unlimited funds for donkey sanctuaries. No, it’s not going to happen. You’re right.
Even when I’ve tried to a) be clever and b) help others this week, it’s backfired and gone spats over monocle, straight into the slurry. On Thursday, I had three courier parcels ready to go, but one of them couldn’t be sent until the Friday, because the recipient wouldn’t be there to receive it until Monday. To save the courier having to come back again on Friday just for one parcel, I explained this to him and said if he could take it now and just keep it at the depot overnight, then put it into the system a day after the first two, all would be well, and he could save himself coming back for another pickup. He readily agreed and took all three parcels away. You can guess the rest, as Bryan Ferry might say, if he was here right now. A courier turned up on Friday anyway, to collect a non-existent parcel, and of course, meanwhile, the couriers tried to deliver the parcel they should have held back for a day, on Friday instead, when the recipient wasn’t at home.
Mind you, at one point during the week, I thought we’d be lucky to reach Friday at all. I was working away on Tuesday when I suddenly heard he distant wail of an air-raid siren. For a while, I didn’t really allow it to impinge on my consciousness, because there is often the noise of sirens from emergency vehicles echoing across from the other side of the valley, but the insistence of this particular noise, and its eerie reverberation, made me finally take notice. What the hell was it? I briefly considered that I might have somehow suffered a time-slip and gone back seventy years (an easy mistake to make in our house) and we were about to have an air raid. But I quickly discounted this idea as ridiculous. Who would want to bomb Huddersfield? Semtex is very expensive.
Eventually, the answer came via the web site of The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, next to a story about a woman from Denby Dale who had just sold her collection of 400 teapots (there are many stories in the naked city…) On the other side of town, there is, believe it or not, a factory that manufactures fertilisers for agriculture. Because of Health and Safety legislation, they have to test their siren once a year, and because the siren has been beefed up, more people than ever before can hear it. Apparently they wrote letters to 4,800 people in the area warning them this would happen and not to be alarmed, but we didn’t get one. What it didn’t say on the Examiner web site, is what you do if the siren goes off one day and it’s not a test. Don your gas-mask and run for the hills, I guess!
As far as news from the outside world is concerned, I’ve been somewhat shielded by the vast amount of work I’ve taken on, this week. Apparently Michael Gove, that wily cove, wants to get rid of teaching assistants now, on the grounds of cost. But why stop there? The Junta could save yet more money to fill the swimming pools of their supporters by abolishing teachers altogether. True, this would lead to gangs of semi-feral urchins roaming the streets (in some areas, these already exist) but eventually, they could collapse from hunger in the gutter, allowing rich people to rescue them and pop them up the nearest chimney. Mr Gradgrind would be very proud. Mr Gove is also a professed enthusiast for unqualified teachers, which has led to speculation on Twitter that he would therefore, presumably, be happy to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon. We can but hope.
Collapsing in the gutter from hunger may well be a reductio ad absurdum at the moment, but am pretty sure it’s going to feature largely in the next Tory manifesto, the way things are going. According to the Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks across the UK, the numbers of people relying on them to survive has tripled over the last year, and now stands at 350,000. A third of these were children, and a third of them were in need of food because of a delay in the payment of benefits. Quasi-Labour MP Frank Field has gone over to the dark side to head up some sort of Government enquiry, instigated by the Junta to kick the problem into the long grass of post-2015. Apparently he has said he will investigate the impact of benefit of cuts, low wages and high food prices. Yeah, well, that would be a good place to start.
The Trussell Trust has said that the problem of hunger in the UK is getting worse, saying that “Rising living costs and stagnant wages are forcing more people to live on a financial knife-edge”. It has also forecast that rising energy prices this winter are likely to see more people "choosing between heating and eating," as the Trust put it.
Critics of food banks in the Junta (usually fat Tory peers and Liberal Democrats who, quite frankly, should know better) claim that the supply stimulates the demand, in a classic cart-before-the-horse reversal of accepted laws of economics. "The Trussell Trust itself says it is opening three new food banks every week, so it's not surprising more people are using them," said a spokesperson for The Blight. Perhaps the Trussell Trust should just ease off a bit and wait till people start dying of starvation in the streets, or social order breaks down as people decide to go “shopping” with a breeze block instead of a credit card, then. Then we’ll see whether, like the mountains, people go to the food banks merely “because they’re there!”
On the matter of benefit payments, the Department for Work and Pensions said that there was "no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks". If that’s true, it’s probably because they don’t collect it. You can’t ignore 350,000 hungry people – if that’s not robust evidence, I don’t know what is. The DWP also said that “ benefit processing times have steadily improved over the past five years, with 90% now being paid within 16 days.” So, in other words, 10% of benefits claims take more than 16 days to process. (and you can bet that’s working days, although sadly you can’t take the day off from starving just because it’s Sunday.) Note that this is before the new proposals (shamefully, supported by the Labour party) to make claimants wait even longer for their cash.
Of course, people will say “there should be no need for food banks, if people managed their affairs correctly.” While it’s true, undoubtedly, that people should (and could, still) be taught to cook proper, nutritious meals, make the most out of ingredients, and feed themselves and others, this is just one small strand of the problem. Not everybody has the time to make “proper” meals, with the increasing demands of the workplace. Or the space. Or the money to pay for the energy to cook it. One of the most chilling aspects of the Trussell Trust report was the instances of people returning food to the food bank that had doled it out to them, because they couldn’t afford to pay the energy bill to cook it!
Inevitably someone will come along and say, well, I bet they have still got their telly and their fags and their lager etc etc etc in the same anecdotal voice that usually brings tales of immigrants jumping to the top of the housing queue and being given free wide screen plasma TVs. The people who come out with these kinds of remark usually follow it with “if I was in that position, I would get on my bike and find work, I would go without as long as my children had enough to eat, and other similar platitudes.”
No doubt they would. So would I. I would go without food to make sure that my dog and cat had enough to eat, if necessary, but that is missing the point. Whose fault is it, really, that the jobs have gone? Whose fault is it that the economy is bumping along the runway instead of taking off again? Why should I? Why should anyone be forced to scrimp and save and give up what few “luxuries” remain in a pretty grim existence. Have we really become so petty and mean-minded that we begrudge people a packet of fags and a few cans of lager, and if we were in their position, wouldn’t we want those things as well, or the equvalent? I strongly suspect, in any case, that these apocryphal tales are just that, but even if not, surely it’s better that the genuine cases of hardship are alleviated, even if it means getting it wrong occasionally and giving a box of canned food to someone who doesn’t really “need” it.
If, instead of the present regime of self-strangulation and inequality, the economy was properly managed, it would grow, and the tax take would grow. If the taxes were fairly levied, fairly collected, and fairly distributed, there would be no need for food banks. No need for food banks, no need for homelessness, no need for poverty, and no need for anyone, child or adult, to starve to death in a land of plenty.
Given that, whatever the rights and wrongs of an admittedly complex situation, people are nevertheless struggling, one could at least expect that energy companies, already making vast profits and paying very little tax in some cases, would at least do their bit to help out their hard-pressed customers. I mean you would expect that, wouldn’t you? In the same way, perhaps, as you would expect a squadron of pigs to zoom, in perfect Red Arrows formation, across the skies outside your window. This week, British Gas, God bless them (preferably with a thunderbolt) raised their prices by 9.2%! At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask.
In a masterpiece of social media planning, the British Gas publicity machine had set up their director of customer services to do a question and answer session on Twitter, that very day, and he was of course assailed with sardonic “tweets” asking him things like which items of furniture he recommended chopping up first, and why. Funny as this was, and pleasing as it was to watch them squirm, sadly, the pain of that experience was only transitory. For those affected by their rapacious, money-grabbing greed, the effect may well be permanent, given the numbers of pensioners who die of fuel poverty each winter. In one sense, the reliance on the fluctuating wholesale price of gas, which BG claim justifies their price hike, is an unintended consequence of the act of political vandalism that trashed Britain’s mining industry in the 1980s and finished it off in the 1990s, leaving us reliant on fickle Russian oligarchs for our energy. I say “unintended”, but given that Mrs Thatcher was behind it, it could just as easily have read “intended”. Since the old bat is now dead, we can’t dig her up or ask her, or put her on trial. I said this would happen, and I take absolutely no pleasure whatsoever, for once, in being proved right.
So what can you do? What can anyone do, at the mercy of behemoths like British Gas who don’t care if you live or die, and politicians who are unwilling or unable to bring them to heel, and er, don’t care if you live or die, either? My suggested solution would be to take action on your own behalf to reverse the price rise. First of all, if you pay for your gas by direct debit, stop it and ask to be sent a bill. Yes, this may initially be more expensive, but bear with me.
When the bill arrives, ignore it, until they get around to sending you the final demand red reminder, then deduct 9.2% (or, if maths isn’t your forte, just round it up to 10%) off the requested sum, and pay the balance. Then, when the next bill comes, pay the unpaid balance off the old bill, and all but 9.2% of the new one. I can’t believe they would go to the trouble of taking thousands, or (I hope) hundreds of thousands of people to court and getting them cut off, for the sake of 9.2% of the average bill. Plus, the delay in their cash flow and the extra work means that for once, the bastards will have to work for their money instead of just milking it from the semi-conscious corpses of their frozen victims.
We can no longer rely on politicians to act in the best interests of “ordinary people”. They are all liars, charlatans, frauds and confidence tricksters. It is time for a campaign of mass civil disobedience over gas prices, to get their attention.
In July 2012, Centrica, the owner of British Gas, reported a 15% rise in first-half adjusted operating profits to £1.45bn. The results included a 23% rise in operating profits at its residential energy division, British Gas, to £345m. In May2012, British Gas suggested that bills could increase for customers that coming winter, blaming rising wholesale gas costs. Wholesale prices subsequently dropped.
Just sayin’. I wonder how much tax they paid?
And so we came to Sunday, the feast of St Acca of Hexham, who lived from 660AD until either 740 or 742AD, and was Bishop of Hexham from 709 until 732. Acca was born in Northumbria, and, after service in the household of Bosa, eventually to become Bishop of York, Acca joined with St Wilfred, and took part in his various travels. One of these involved a stay at Utrecht with St Wilibrord, who was taking his revenge for having a silly name out on the heathens, by converting them.
Acca’s travels with Wilfred included two trips to Rome, and after the second of these, in 692AD, Wilfred was reinstated at Hexham and, in turn, Wilfred made Acca the abbot of St Andrew’s Monastery in the town. Acca carried on the work of church building and decorating started by Wilfrid. He was also both a learned theologian and an accomplished musician. Given his name, it was a great pity that the clarinet wasn’t invented until several hundred years later.
Acca was also famous for his theological learning, and no less a personage than the Venerable Bede praised his theological library. Acca lent Bede various texts and sources which the latter incorporated into his Ecclesiastical History, and was apparently the person who persuaded Stephen of Ripon to write the life of St Wilfred.
For reasons now lost down the back of the sofa of the mists of time, Acca left his diocese in 732. Local tradition in Hexham says he became bishop of Whithorn in Galloway, Scotland, while other scholars claim he founded a See on the site of St. Andrews, taking with him relics collected on his Roman tour, including those of St. Andrew himself. Yet a third account states that having fallen out with the Northumbrian king, Acca went to live in exile in Ireland, on a remote coast before eventually returning to Hexham. Given the frequent confusion in the interchangeable nomenclature between Ireland and Scotland in those days, this could be another version of the Whithorn story, of course.
I’d like to think of him having visited The Isle of Whithorn, because I’ve been there myself. No other reason, really. I just like to feel a personal connection with these places.
The Isle of Whithorn has changed quite a bit since the days of St Acca, chiefly because it is now no longer an island. What used to be the causeway that connected it to the mainland, in pretty much the same way as present-day Lindisfarne is connected, has now been infilled and turned into basically the High Street. It’s possible to chart this process on successive old maps, some of which also show that there was once a specially-formed dyke at the tidal harbour entrance, whose specific purpose was to catch fish. Insert your own equality and diversity joke at this point.
The Isle of Whithorn is still, in many ways, though, a wild and lonely, melancholy place, or it was when I was last there in 2008. I certainly felt like a stranger on the shore. Not for nothing was it used as the location for several scenes in the film The Wicker Man. The saint most associated with Whithorn, however, is not Acca, but Saint Ninian, the ruins of whose chapel still stand there, having been maintained over the centuries by the Marquesses of Bute. When we were there, I added my own stone to the pilgrim cairn at the entrance to St Ninian’s Chapel, with the message “New Life/New Leaf” – little did I know just how radically fate would take me at my word.
In modern times, Whithorn has, sadly, been probably most famous for the tragedy of the sinking, 17 miles away off the Isle of Man, of the Solway Harvester, which was based at the port, in January 2000, in which seven lives were lost, and there is a granite memorial commemorating the tragedy in the town.
I seem to have wandered off course almost as far as St Acca did, here, so I suppose I ought now to make an effort and rejoin him in Hexham, at least metaphorically. It’s just that the mention of the Isle of Whithorn led me to muse for a while on all the things I can’t do any more, and how different life was, back then.
Acca was buried at Hexham, near the east wall of the Abbey. Two finely carved crosses were erected at the head and foot of his grave, and fragments of one of these still remain. Acca was revered as a saint immediately after his death, but his cause gained a boost in or around 1153, when canons sent by the Archbishop of York to re-establish Hexham as an Augustinian Priory also “conveniently” as Tom Corfe puts it, rediscovered Acca’s remains. His remains were eventually translated at least three times. In the early 11th century, by Alfred of Westow, in 1154, at the restoration of the Abbey, when the relics of all the Hexham saints were all combined in a single shrine; and again in 1240. Acca’s only surviving writing, though, out of all his theology and learning, is a letter addressed to The Venerable Bede, and printed in his works
I suppose if the life of St Acca serves to point up one thing, it’s probably the futility of human endeavour. Who knows, one day all that remains of me might be a letter I wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not that I am attempting here to put myself on the same plane as a distinguished theologian such as St Acca, merely that I am pointing out that very seldom does the beginning accord to the end, as the Gawain poet puts it, and life is rarely pure and hardly ever simple.
Sometimes you have to wonder what’s the point of carrying on. The contents of the medicine cabinet start to look more and more appealing The country’s in a mess, the world’s in a mess, and I am out of sorts with all of it, and I doubt I have the energy any more to do a Kipling and stoop, and build it up with worn-out tools. What’s the point of doing another book, of chivvying the powerful and unjust, of collecting together jumble for the dog rescue, if at the end of the day, your whole existence, your whole being, every fibre of what you tried to achieve, is reduced to a dusty scrap of paper in an archive somewhere, a line in faded ink in a dusty ledger. He lived, he died, it will say. But between those two parentheses will be a tantalising blank. “Ah, but,” a Christian would say, “that does not matter, because by then you will be enjoying your reward in heaven!” Which is all fine and dandy, but fine words butter no parsnips. Why does it have to be either/or? Why do we have to suffer cruelty and injustice and inequality in this life? Even if we believe in life after death, what about life before death?
Anyway, I have been here before, a stranger on the shore, and peeped over the cliff-edge, and then turned and gone back to the relative warmth and safety of my daily round, my monastic tasks of writing manuscripts, cooking food, and tending to animals. No doubt I daresay next week will be the same. Me and my Gordian knot of 14 problems. I’ve scourged myself with them so often, they’ve almost become a cat o’nine tails. Work and pray, they say, and everything will come right, Work and pray. Ora et Labore. It would be nice, just sometimes, though, to think that someone in the great beyond, someone who can do something about it, is listening. Big G, if you aren’t having a Sunday afternoon nap right now, Centrica UK’s head office is at Millstream, Near Windsor. That’s where to send the thunderbolt. But you knew that already, I guess.