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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Epiblog for the Feast of St Odran

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  Still warm, but the leaves are coming off apace, now, and making a thick carpet on my wheelchair ramps. The rain, when it comes, is sudden, and fierce, then gone again, almost as quickly. We have, indeed, lost the Feverfew, and there’s no point in replacing it before next Spring. I have great plans for the garden next year, but they will have to wait. Now, it’s a case of battening down the hatches and counting the damage after Christmas.

Matilda’s been skittering about with the wind up her tail, thundering around in the middle of the night, chasing her own shadow and/or imaginary spooks.  Like all the cats we’ve ever had, she seems to think I am able to control the weather.  When I open up the door to the cat flap in a morning, she goes to it and sticks her head out to check what’s going on, and if it’s raining, she follows me, yowling, as I go through to the kitchen, then goes to the conservatory door and asks to be let out there. I have told her that the weather outside the conservatory door is exactly the same as the weather outside her cat flap, but she won’t rest until she has tested it personally.

The remainder of the animal contingent have had a relatively blameless week, although whenever three dogs get together and form a pack, however rudimentary and ad hoc, there’s bound to be some shenanigans.  Misty went for her first ever walkies with Grandad and Zak this week, and celebrated the event by throwing up in Grandad’s new car.  Not content with that, she added to the mayhem on Saturday by barrelling in after her outing to Deer Hill Nab with Debbie, and putting her foot on the edge of the muttnut dish, reprising her earlier chaos.  Once again, I found myself picking up each one individually with my grabstick.  I don’t know how many there were this time, I lost count at 93. In fact, I was losing the will to live.

Most of the time, Freddie takes one look at the weather outside, turns round again on the settee, and settles back down to a further bout of snoozing.  He did, however, show some signs of wanting to go walkies on Wednesday, so Debbie adapted her plans to something more suitable for a 90-year old (in human years) and set off down to the cricket field with Misty, Zak and Freddie in tow.  I settled down to carry on working. I have done little else this week. [No Max Miller jokes about Little Else, thank you!] Half an hour later, the phone went off. It was Debbie.

“I don’t suppose he’s come back, has he?”

Several possibilities crossed my mind – Elvis? Jesus? – then I realised she meant Freddie. I looked outside, through the conservatory door. Blackness, wind, possibly the odd spot of rain. But no dog.

“No, there’s no sign of him.”

“Oh God, the little sod’s scuttled off somewhere, and I have no idea where he is!”

I suggested to Deb that all she could do was to retrace her steps as quickly as possible with the other two, and hope to overtake him somewhere along the path.  She said she would. In the meantime, all I could do was open the conservatory door and bellow “FREDDIE!” several times into the darkness.  All that did was to set Butch next door off barking, so I packed it in and went back to get warm by the stove.  Ten minutes later, I had just about thawed, when I looked across and saw Freddie’s whiskery little face pressed up against the glass of the conservatory door. I trundled over and let him in, and he made a beeline for the settee, while I speed-dialled Debbie and told her that he’d somehow found his way back.

When she returned shortly afterwards, Debbie gave Freddie an almighty dressing down, calling him a “dementia-ridden old fogey” and telling him he was grounded for a month.  I ventured that he must still have some of his marbles left, as he did find his own way back, and received the full benefit of a gamma-ray glare for my trouble, so I shut up.

Anyway, with the weekend, and Granny’s return from her royal progress through the southern half of her dominion, Freddie and Zak have returned home, and Misty is once more queen of the contested armchair. I think she might be missing the other members of her impromptu pack, though, as she keeps coming up to me while I am working and nuzzling at my arm to stop and make a fuss of her.  If I am ever going to get any real work done while she’s in this mood, I need to somehow fix up a false arm bolted to the side of my wheelchair, so she can nuzzle away while I carry on typing.

Debbie has been looking forward to half-term, and maybe even getting off to the Lakes for a couple of days in the camper van. She’s been looking up the Wainwrights, and talking about getting even fitter for walking, and wanting to bivvy out on top of a mountain.  I have no objection to going off in the camper as a concept, it’s merely the destination I quibble over, at this time of the year, though I doubt that the camper would make it as far as Majorca.  Plus, Debbie is becoming more and more a disciple of Father Vincent McNabb, at least as far as walking is concerned:

Buy boots you can walk in. Walk in them. Even if you lessen the income of the General Omnibus Company, or your family doctor, you will discover the human foot. On discovering it, your joy will be as great as if you had invented it. But this joy is the greatest, because no human invention even of Mr. Ford or Mr. Marconi is within a mile of a foot.

In the meantime, we continue our medieval monastic existence here, pending any departure on a vehicular peregrination.  I have discovered that I can make a home-made rustic hummus by mashing a tin of chick-peas and then adding in various other ingredients. I could always put it through the blender, but I begrudge the effort/reward ratio involved in putting the bloody thing together in the first place, then dismantling and washing it up afterwards, for the sake of a couple of slices of toast and hummus for Debbie, so I mash it by hand.  I did say, when I was making her breakfast the other day, that I felt as if I should be singing traditional tribal chick-pea pounding mouth music.  She said I shouldn’t feel obliged.

It’s a great way of taking out your aggression, though, or should I say frustration.  Or maybe a mixture of both.  Still, it’s not all been gloomy news. The Home Office has finally decided that the “go home” vans are a bad idea.  They were “too much of a blunt instrument”, apparently.  Well, I could have told them that, if they’d asked me at the outset, but then we would have all missed out on the entertaining spectacle of a shitstorm of protest blasting Theresa May.  No sooner had this happened than Cameron himself popped up saying that Facebook were irresponsible in hosting graphic videos of beheadings.  Against a background of energy companies raising their prices faster than an Amish barn, John Major, of all people, rose from the grave to say that the higher prices should be subject to a windfall tax.  By now, I was starting to pinch myself.  I am sure it’s just a temporary aberration, though, and the aliens will be giving us the real Tories back, any day now.

Meanwhile, the cost of the initial badger culling trial was announced. 1558 badgers had been culled, at an averaged-out cost of £2,246 per badger. Given that a double room at The Savoy costs £346.48 per night, for that money it has taken to kill these badgers, the government could have put each of them up at The Savoy for six nights. Leaving aside the arguments against culling badgers, and the many reasons why the proposed cull will not help in stopping the spread of bovine TB, purely on cost grounds alone you have to wonder if it is money well spent.

Despite the rather odd Damascene conversions from the likes of Cameron, May, etc, here have also been some depressingly-familiar stories rumbling around.  The potential disaster at Grangemouth Oil Refinery was averted, but only by means of a climbdown by Unite, who were backed into a corner by the owners so that they had no choice but to either give way or be seen to be held responsible for the loss of 1800 jobs and 14% of our national energy capacity.

One of the blogs I read on the subject at the time summed it up rather neatly:

What is there left to be positive about in the British economy? People genuinely talk as if this might be the future, that we may need to accept total dominance of employers with no recourse at all by workers. This is a vision of Britain where we're all like Mexican immigrants waiting at the side of the road for a truck to drive up and its driver to say 'one day of work – you, you and you'. But, as is par for the course in Britain with its far-right media and utter lack of understanding of how the world works beyond our shores, people seem to think we're normal. Yet one more time, the Grangemouth disaster shows one thing above all – Britain is not normal. Not at all.

You could argue that such sentiment has no place n a weekly spiritual reflection, of course, but then you would be arguing against Father Vincent McNabb, who said;

"There is general agreement that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient working-mens guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organisation took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless under different guise, but with the like injustice, still practised by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself."

He was writing this in the 1930s, fired up by the zeal sparked in him by his reading of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum,  as he ministered to the poor and the disadvantaged in the slums of St Pancras in London, but – rather depressingly – his words still ring true today.  The fact that nothing ever seems to change was also the subject of a much-debated piece of television, namely Russell Brand versus Jeremy Paxman on whether not voting can ever be, in the words of 1066 and All That, “a good thing.”

I didn’t watch it live, but it caused a flurry of interest on the internet (not to be confused with a flurry of interest in real life) so I logged on and played it back on the BBC’s I-Player thingum.

In fact, the whole exchange seemed rather sterile and pointless. There was no progression, because Paxo and Brand were just lobbing grenades at each other from entrenched positions. Brand saying, in effect, what I have said in the past: - don't vote, it only encourages them, but then failing to develop his argument and provide alternatives, and Paxo saying over and over again that Brand had no right to make that statement if he himself didn't vote, which is a connection I didn't quite get.

The crux of the issue is how to send a massive and unequivocal message to politicians that things have to change and there has to be a re-connect with ordinary people's aims and aspirations and an end to the ever-widening gulf between the rich, cocooned political elite and the rest of us, the lumpenproletariat queuing for buses in the rain.

My own solutions are

a) a boycott of the existing political process, a "none of the above" campaign, but this would have to be a truly mass boycott, and carried out in such a way that the politicians could not just ignore it and carry on as before or write it off merely as apathy. This would of necessity involve people with wildly differing views burying the hatchet temporarily and working together for one cause only, re-establishing fairness and representation in politics. It would be a bit like playing football in no-man's land while the campaign was in process. Or:

b) setting up an alternative structure alongside parliament to monitor and comment on what parliament does which is the route the Occupy St Pauls movement an d the People's Assembly are going down. Or:

c) cross-party pressure for parliamentary reform, in effect a new Great Reform Bill, including curbs on expenses, curbs on unelected special advisors and lobbying firms, curbs on donations, individuals and corporate, a residency qualification before you can stand for a constituency, limit the number of MPs' homes to one home, in the constituency, and maybe powers of recall. If I wasn’t so damn tired, I would start a campaign now, calling for a new Great Reform Bill, along those lines. I offer the idea for free to anyone who wants to pick up the baton and run with it. Or:

d) Various forms of direct action a la UK Uncut. The problem with these though is they are prone to being hijacked by either violent loony anarchists and/or MI5 agents provocateur, who want to cause violence so the message of the original demo will be lost in the media noise about the violence. Or:

e) Rioting, looting, civil disorder, water cannon and troops on the streets. (My least favourite of all these options, but that is where we are headed if we don't do something).

or f) all of the above

And, I hasten to add, that a) above would have to be carried out in such a way as to remain mindful and respectful of the great privilege we have of owning a vote, and not be allowed to become metaphorical peeing on the graves of all those, including Emily Davidson, who gave their lives in order that we could choose our representatives in democratic elections.

The problem is that anger in itself has nowhere to go.  I am angry about a great many things. Angry about the uncaring, stupid government with their wrecking, slash-and-burn policies. Angry about homelessness, angry about dogs and cats being abandoned and left to die in council pounds.  Angry at the way my country, once a beacon of respect and tolerance, famous for giving the underdog a chance, has been turned into a nasty, narrow-minded nest of bigots. Angry at being potentially labelled a useless scrounger because some genetic fault way back in my family’s history long before I was born now means I am confined to this mobile birdcage with a life-limiting disease. It’s not bad enough that I’m dying , apparently, the DWP is intent on labelling me as a leech on society as well, for daring to claim back some of the money I paid into the system all those years I worked, back in the days when here were still real jobs, from 1976-2010.

But what good does it do? Over a million people were angry about Tony Blair taking us into an illegal war in Iraq, but he still went ahead and did it anyway.  We need to find some way of channelling my, and other people’s anger, into real, believable change for the better in society, otherwise it will find another way out, with much less pleasant results.  If the politicians really do want to end up swinging from a lamp-post like Mussolini, they are going the right way about it.

I shouldn’t read Father Vincent McNabb, it does my blood pressure no good at all, but I have (rather perversely, considering all the other more urgent stuff I should be doing) been continuing to research the book I started to write some years ago on utopias, and Fr McNabb is an important link between people such as Chesterton and Belloc, who espoused “distributism” and Eric Gill’s arts and crafts community, to which he was, briefly, the Dominican chaplain. Fr McNabb is a very interesting figure in many ways, and well worthy of a book in his own right.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they canonised him one day. He deserves canonisation alone for describing having to listen to the confessions of nuns as “like being slowly pecked to death by a duck.”

Anyway, at one point he says:

"Only once did anyone come to Jesus after speech with Him and go away sad. This was the young man who had great desire to have everlasting life. But he also had great possessions. He did not know that for him the way to the joy of life was to accept the challenge of Jesus, Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven. And come follow me. He did not realise that his invitation to follow the poor Babe of Bethlehem, the poor man of Galilee, the poor outcast of Golgotha, was a call to enter the narrow path of perfect joy. He could not leave the things which sooner or later would leave him. He clung to his great possessions on earth rather than seek treasure in Heaven, and left the joy of wilful poverty and the following of Jesus for the sadness of wilful wealth and the service of Mammon."

Which is all well and good, but I object to the poor being told to give up what little they have in the first place, in order to make the lot of the rich happier and more comfortable, which seems to be our current situation.  Especially as, in some cases, when they complain about it, the poor are told not to worry, not to make a fuss, because it will all be better in the next world.  Poverty and wealth are relative terms, of course, and there is also poverty and wealth of the spirit, as opposed to money and possessions.  Fr McNabb probably owned less in the way of material possessions than many of his parishioners. He only ever owned one cassock at a time, and wore it until it was past repair, at which point he was usually, providentially, donated another. He would tramp round his parish, visiting the poor and the sick (even washing kitchen floors, on occasion) with his rucksack (he called it a “Nabb-sack”) on his back, and wearing his hob-nailed army boots, which took him everywhere.  Yet he seems to have been possessed of the same wealth of spiritual treasure that the Zen monks who possessed only a robe and a bowl used to enjoy, as they tramped from monastery to monastery.

Eight or nine years ago now, in one of my very first Epiblogs, written about having a meeting with Barclays Bank who were trying to take away our overdraft at the time, using the metaphor of St Crispin’s Day, I said that I needed to be careful not to get too hung up about the things that don’t matter, and concentrate on those that do.  I still hold by that, eight years later, in another week that also contains St Crispin’s Day.  What I object to is people having what little they do possess taken away from them, whether they like it or not. It’s one thing to decide voluntarily to give up all you have an follow Christ into the wilderness, it’s a completely different matter to have your house taken away from over your head because some idiot politician needed the money to have his swimming pool cleaned out on expenses, or the boss of some energy company needed a third home in the Bahamas. What I object to is living in a country where the Helping Hands Dog Rescue has to find £1500 by the end of the month or it will be forced to close. [They are on Facebook, if you can help them in any way, please do.]

Anyway, we seem somehow to have reached Sunday again, by a roundabout route, and the Feast of St. Odran of Iona.  As usual, of course, there is more than one St Odran, and to make it even more confusing, the other one was also a sidekick to a famous saint, in his case, St. Patrick.

“Today’s” Odran, whose name is sometimes spelt “Otteran”, served as abbot of the Irish monastery of Tyfarnham in Meath, and founded another abbey at Latteragh in County Tipperary. According to Irish tradition Odran served as abbot of Meath and while carrying out that duty, also founded Lattreagh. Although little is known about his life, he is described as “noble and without sin.” He left Ireland with eleven others to accompany the Irish missionary priest Saint Columba on his sea journey to the Scottish island of Iona, where Columba subsequently founded the Iona monastic colony. Shortly after their arrival, Otteran sensed his own death drawing near, and predicted that he would be the first monk to die on the island.

After taking leave of Otteran and giving him his blessing, Columba stepped outside, where he experienced a vision of angels battling with demons as the soul of his friend Otteran was borne to heaven. Columba learned that Otteran had in fact died just then. Iona’s original cemetery grew around Otteran’s burial plot. In fact, the oldest remaining church on Iona is dedicated to Saint Odran and the surrounding cemetery is called Reilig Odhráin in his memory.

Another legend surrounding Odran’s death tells that the chapel which St Columba wanted to build on Iona kept on being destroyed every night. Finally he was told by a voice(!) that it could never be finished until a living man was buried below. So Odran volunteered to be buried alive, in order that the chapel could be finished. But one day he suddenly reappeared, and pushed his head through the wall and said that there was no hell as was supposed, nor heaven that people talk about!  Alarmed by this, Columba had the pit covered with earth again, quickly, “to save Odran's soul from the world and its sin.” Yeah, right.

It has been pointed out by George Henderson, in Survivals in Belief Among The Celts (1911) that the legend points to an ancient folk-belief, and he sees a similarity with the Arthurian legend of the building of Dinas Emris, where Vortigern was counselled to find and sacrifice "a child without a father" to ensure that the fortress walls did not collapse.  This folkloric tradition is known as “foundation sacrifice” and Peter Ackroyd uses it to great effect in the thriller Hawksmoor.

I see it, though, as less sinister and more gentle -  more as a relict of the various Irish tales about the little people, the faery folk, objecting to humans building at their sacred sites and undoing overnight what the earthly folk built up during the day, a common motif, unless the humans agree to give them a hostage to take away into the land of faery, but either way it’s a fascinating survival of some sort of vestigial, shamanistic notion from a time long before anything was ever written down, handed on in tales told round a flickering fire, while all outside the winter darkness raged and monsters prowled.

It’s all too easy to believe in such things at this time of year. Next week brings Halloween, a time when the dark curtain between this world and the next can sometimes grow less opaque, more transparent.  Coincidentally, talking of a different kind of haunting, tomorrow would have been my father’s 91st birthday.  He doesn’t haunt me in a literal sense, of course, wandering around he house in a sheet or clanking chains,  though, as I have often said before, I do have long and lucid dreams where I have conversations with him and I know he’s dead and he knows he’s dead, and it’s no big deal, really.  But he haunts me in the sense of some days I feel myself becoming him, and I find myself defining my daily experiences and reactions through the filter of what he would have said, or done, at the time.

As far as Iona is concerned, the modern-day community on the island say that it is

“a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”

All of which is very fine and good, but fine words butter no parsnips.  So maybe, as we go into yet another week of potentially bad weather and unforeseen challenges, while still trying to maintain some sense of equilibrium and count my blessings, such as they are, I should take the unprecedented step (for me) of releasing my prayers at this time (such as they are) publicly in the form of an open letter to Big G.

“Hello.  It’s me, but then you knew that from the caller display.  Please don’t faint on not having heard from me for a while, and I pray obviously for all the normal family stuff, plus please bless Misty, Matilda, Zak and Freddie. If at all possible, could you house the homeless, feed the hungry, stop the redundancies and the house repossessions, bring about a change of heart in the rapacious robber-barons of the Junta and their allies so they give most or all of what they have to the poor, and find homes for all the animals in the sanctuaries, in the process reuniting any lost ones with their owners.  Also please ensure Hull City stay in the premiership this season (you may need to call on St Jude for help on this bit).”

“Finally, please give me the strength to carry on for as long as I need to, because of the people (furry and not that furry) who, unaccountably and completely to my surprise, apparently depend upon me.  And when the time does finally come, please bear in mind good old Cardinal Newman when you come to weigh me in the balance and ‘the shades lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy may you give us a safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at last’.”

Until then, I am going to put the kettle on. It’s what my dad would have done, in the circumstances.

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