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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Epiblog for the Feast of St Martin de Porres

It has been a busy week in the Holme valley. For us, it began with the storm that never was. Last Sunday, after finishing and posting last week’s blog, I went round outside as best I could, wedging plant pots in place so they couldn’t be blown over, and generally tidying up anything that could fall over or be blown away. Reluctantly, I had abandoned the plastic greenhouse with a rip in its top to its fate. In fact, if the storm picked it up and carried it off to Oz, that would probably have been the kindest thing all round, and would save us having to dispose of it next spring. 

You can guess the rest, as Bryan Ferry would no doubt say, if he were here right now. Nothing happened here. It was a bit windy, and it rained overnight. We got off lightly, it would seem, considering that four people died across the south and west of England. As far as I was concerned though, it was low, underpants, sprouts, wind, becoming calm later, good.  I gather that, in London, a crane fell from a roof onto the Cabinet Office, narrowly missing Nick Clegg, which proves that prayer sometimes does almost work.

Matilda’s been coming into the kitchen more frequently now that the weather has become a bit chilly chilly nip nip.  It is an immutable law of nature that in any given set of circumstances, any given cat will seek to perch in the warmest place available, and she’s now taken to building herself a little cat-nest behind the settee, approximately three feet, as the therm flies, from the stove.  No doubt as the winter progresses, she will once more seamlessly translate onto Kitty’s cat-bed, still made up for her, actually in the hearth.

It being half-term, Debbie wanted to go off or a few days in the camper van, but the weather put the kibosh on that, too. Well, actually, not so much the weather itself, as the weather forecast, which threatened rain, wind and generally more unsettled weather. Quite sensibly for her, for once, Debbie decided that there wasn’t much fun in getting back to the camper wet through and cold in the dark after climbing a mountain, then sitting there shivering for the next ten hours. I was glad that, for once, we agreed about this. But then, of course, we had two mild autumn days in a row, with bits of sunshine, midweek, and we ended up wishing we’d gone after all. Why did we even bother to take notice of the forecast, especially as Monday’s was completely up the creek? 

In the absence of any specific mountains to climb, Debbie has been rambling over the hills around the Holme valley with Misty (and sometimes Zak) in tow, getting limbered up for the attempt she is determined to make to do the Three Peaks [Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-Y-Ghent, for our non-Yorkshire listeners] in less than eight hours. What Misty thinks about this remains unrecorded, though Zak is always good to go. I think he must have been Alfred Wainwright in a former life.

So, for most days this week, Debbie has been wandering abroad, spreading chaos wherever she goes. Her sense of mis-direction is legendary. For a long time, she thought that whichever direction she faced in at the time was north. Then she progressed to muttering “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” under her breath, to remind herself of the cardinal points of the compass.

So any expedition with Debbie is likely to have, shall we say, unpredictable outcomes, especially in this case for the old bloke who stopped in his car and asked her for directions as she was lauping along with Misty, en route to West Nab. “Is this the road to Meltham?” he asked her. “Yes it is!” she cheerfully replied, only realising after he had driven off that, while her answer to his question had been technically correct, it was only the road to Meltham if you were pointing in the opposite direction to that in which he had been pointing. Poor bugger.  Mind you, she has form for this sort of thing. A French lorry-driver once stopped outside our house and asked her for directions to Manchester, and she told him to go right at Lockwood Bar instead of left at Folly Hall. For all I know, he’s still orbiting the ring road, muttering “Zut alors!” under his breath.

From one of these midweek excursions, Misty came home bearing a strange aroma that filled the house with its exotic fragrance. I looked enquiringly at Debbie.

“Yes, she’s rolled in a cow pat, before I could stop her.”

“Oh no! We could do with some of those special  muddy dog wipes like we used to have for Tiggy.”

“We could do with a dog that doesn’t roll in cow shit in the first place!”

I had to admit that Debbie had employed Occam’s razor to devastating effect. As it was, the only thing that we had to hand, short of herding Misty into the shower, was a packet of tea-tree facial cleansing wipes, which were sacrificed to the greater good of removing the farmyard miasma from the kitchen.

As far as my own week was concerned, I have been steadily working away on Crowle Street Kids, and it’s good to see the book coming together at last, albeit sometimes at the same rate as a medieval manuscript in a scriptorium. Part of the problem lies in fact-checking, particularly, this week, the bits about the Hull Blitz. There have been at least three books on the Hull Blitz, some of which are now out of print and hard to obtain, though still available in record repositories and libraries. The main archival source for recording the history of the air raids is the series of Air Raid Reports, compiled from the ARP [Air Raid Precautions] records of the time. These are held in the Hull History Centre in Worship Street, but even these official records are not complete and several files are missing. They do have an index by street though. Family historians will also find helpful information on Blitz victims in the “Index of Civilian War Dead” and the North East Diary 1939-45 by Roy Ripley and Brian Pears.

For many years one of the most immediately accessible sources online has been the “Age Concern Hull Blitz Map", so called because it was found in an old display case in Hull in a building belonging to the charity Age Concern by Rob Haywood, who said of it:

Who owned it before that, exactly who prepared it, is still a mystery. But I split the map, did the artwork on the sections to tidy them up, remove the worst creases, and indeed made the actual plots clearer. The original map was not in good condition.

The enlarged sections of the map which Rob Haywood made available online have been joined in recent times by a souped-up modern Hull bombing map, which appears at the time of writing on the internet at www.hullbitz.org. This seems to use as its primary data source the Age Concern map and information from local memories and the National Archives, but again there are omissions – the bomb which drove Arthur Wall out of Lorne Terrace in 1942 for instance is not mentioned, neither are the Empringham Street bombs of 1940.

Looking at Arthur Wall’s self-drawn map of “the bombed areas”, for instance, on the CSK web site, it seems clear that the areas of damage he recalls are much more extensive than any of those listed on the “official” or semi-official sources, and it is possible that this differential is maintained across other areas of Crowle Street and, indeed, across the City as a whole.  Clearly what is needed is for some public-spirited individual with time on their hands to take on the task of co-ordinating and cross-referencing the plots on the various maps with the National Archives records, the Air Raid Reports in Hull History Centre, and possibly even a widespread public appeal for memories via, say, local radio and The Hull Daily Mail, while there are still people around who can remember. It would make a great “retirement project” for someone! But, as the late great Robert Zimmerframe once said, “It ain’t me, Babe!”

So, I have spent much of the week googling for terms such as “bomb”, “bomb plot map”, “high explosive” “bomb damage” and so on, in an attempt to untangle the knots in the manuscript. It was only later that I thought that this probably wasn’t a good idea, and that a little light had probably come on somewhere in the NSA or the CIA or GCHQ as a result of my efforts.  Then I realised that, because I had logged in to google earlier as Gez Walsh in order to post his latest blog for him, it was in fact “Gez Walsh” who had apparently made all those incriminating searches, not me.  So that’s OK, then, it’ll be his door they kick down!

By this time, it had got to Friday, and Debbie had decided that she was ready for a dry-run (which turned out to be anything but) on two thirds of the Three Peaks, viz and to whit, Whernside and Ingleborough. So it was that I was loaded like a parcel into the camper, along with Zak and Misty, and we all found ourselves bowling along the back-roads, bound for Skipton, Settle, and Horton in Ribblesdale.  I amused myself by looking out of the window. It was the first time I had been “out” (as opposed to just booling round the garden) for eight weeks.  In no time at all we were passing through the Keighley suburb of Ingrow, which would be a great place to start a chiropody practice, and I noticed a vet next door to an Indian takeaway. I pointed these out to Debbie, commenting “Either way, you get your dog back.”

By now, we were out in open country and the weather, which had been grim and grey at home, had perked up a bit. I looked over the stone walls into the fields. One advantage of being a passenger in the camper, as opposed to a car, is the more elevated viewpoint.  I noted a flock of sheep covered in multi-coloured dye, and in the midst of them, the ram, still wearing his harness, contentedly munching at the lush green grass.

“Oh look, they’ve got the ram in with them!” I said to Debbie.


“Who? The Mormon bloody tabernacle choir!”

It had been four years since I’d last seen the Ribblehead Viaduct, but it never ceases to amaze. I wrote about it in Loitering With Tin Tent and, since time is short today, it seems sensible just to reprise that description.

The starkness of the landscape, with its vast slabs of millstone grit, carved by the ice of unimaginable glaciers millions of years ago, makes the contrast with the principal man-made artefact of Ribblesdale even more astonishing.
The Ribble Head Viaduct, which carries the Settle to Carlisle line, was completed in 1875 over five years at a cost of around £200 million, in today’s money.  This almost bankrupted the Midland Railway.  In those pre-JCB, pre-concrete days, it was of course built mostly by hand, by a vast sprawling army of over two thousand “navvies” who toiled relentlessly to raise its 24 arches 104 feet above the ground using steam-powered cranes and nothing more high-tech than bricks, mortar, stone, shovels, picks and trowels.  They spent their off-duty time in a squalid encampment, sleeping, eating and no doubt dreaming of the day the job would end and the money they had earned for this difficult, dangerous drudgery would see the metaphorical bars lifted temporarily from their metaphorical windows.
            Cold, rain and mud, coupled with a working regime that would probably give a modern-day Health and Safety officer a heart attack, were not the only things that troubled them. Smallpox broke out in the camp, resulting in the graveyard at nearby Chapel-Le-Dale having to be extended to take in all the “extras”.  Some of the workers or members of their families who died during the viaduct’s construction were buried in unmarked graves.

Notwithstanding the hardship of building it, the Viaduct remains a magnificent monument to those who created it.  In the background the vast bank of Whernside hung, poised like an enormous stone wave caught forever in the act of breaking, and, today, topped off with a dense foam of mist to complete the metaphor.

Debbie and the dogs set off at ten past two, and five hours and 27 minutes later the light of a head-torch bobbing up the road signalled their return, wet and cold. Deb wasn’t particularly pleased with her time, saying that she’d never fit in Pen-Y-Ghent as well, inside her own self-imposed timescale. They’d also had a bit of a contretemps on top of Ingleborough, because it was dark and the mist was swirling thickly on the summit, but between them they’d managed to pick their way down and back to the road. I am not sure who had been leading who at that point.

On the way back, we passed through the village of Stone Chair, a place-name which always amuses me. Presumably they called it after the first thing they saw when they opened their eyes, in which case they should count themselves lucky not to be living in a place called Tin Of Peas or Two Dogs Bonking.  We also passed a pizza takeaway in Hipperholme called “Crusty Moe’s”. Memo to owner – when it comes to pizza marketing, crusty pizza good, crusty owner, bad.

We all slept soundly on Friday night and woke to yet more windy rainy weather. It was All Souls Day and I did the washing up from the previous night, singing

A soul, a soul a soul cake,
Please, good missis a soul cake…

And thinking how all the traditions at this time of the year were to do with poor people going from door to door begging for largesse from those better off than themselves, as an alternative to starving, another concept which is bound to find its way into the next Tory manifesto.  While I was putting the rubbish out, there was a sudden crash of thunder and a flash of lightning overhead, and I realised that I was sitting in an exposed position, in a structure largely composed of tubular metal.  I don’t know if there’s a record for the reverse sprint in a wheelchair, but if there is, I bet I broke it.

As far as turning people out into the street to beg is concerned, it seems that Ayrshire Council is trying to get ahead of the game this week, as the Scottish Daily Record has reported they have already been sending out letters to people who are in arrears with the bedroom tax threatening them not only with eviction, but also that, if there are children involved, social services will be informed as a matter of course.  The council, when challenged, claimed these letters were just intended to inform people of the dangers of not paying – since both parties are presumably already aware of the consequences, personally, I fail to see what purpose is served by these scare tactics.  Threatening people with homelessness and having their children taken away is not helpful.

I suppose we should not expect too much, at a time when people are being forced to choose between eating, paying their Bedroom tax or heating their homes.  According to “Wear Red”,

340 MPs get their energy bills for 2nd homes paid for by the tax payer. Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi claimed a staggering £5,822 in just 12 months to heat his £1 million constituency home. (That's more than 4 times the average household energy bill). Mr Zahawi (who also owns a £5 million home in London) boasts of his "achievements" on the Energy Bill Committee at improving “energy efficiency measures to homes and businesses”.

I haven’t personally checked those facts, but if they are true, then maybe the next “bomb plot map” should actually feature London SW1, and not the slums of East Hull. Got that, MI5? Oh, and while we’re at it, your furniture’s crap.

It’s been a week when the Junta obviously decided they were losing the war of words over the issue of poverty and food banks, because they wound up Richard Littlejohn this week to do the same sort of hatchet job he did on transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows, who committed suicide after his attack on her.  This time his target in the Daily Heil was Jack Monroe, the author of the blog (and book) A Girl Called Jack, whose “Hunger Hurts” blog was quoted and re-quoted over and over again by opponents of the government's enforced hunger policies.  Obviously this has got under their skin. I can’t prove any of this, but then it’s only my opinion, so, by the Daily Mail’s PCC standard it doesn’t count: I reckon someone in Cameron (or possibly IDS)’s office rang the Mail and asked them to get Littlejohn to rubbish Jack Monroe. Well, they probably wish they’d saved their breath to cool their porridge, because she issued a point by point rebuttal of the Littlejohn smear page. It’s too long to cut and paste but it’s here if you are interested.

And so we came to Sunday, and the feast of St Martin de Porres, who for some reason known only to those in charge of such things, is the patron saint of barbers. Perhaps he slept in on the day they were handing them out.

Juan Martin de Porres was born in Lima Peru, on December 9, 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, Don Juan de Porres. His mother was a freed slave from Panama, of African or possibly part Native American descent, named Ana Velázquez. After the birth of Martin’s sister, the father abandoned the family and Ana Velasquez supported her children by taking in laundry.  When his mother could no longer support him, Martin was sent to a primary school for two years, and then placed with a barber/surgeon to learn the medical arts, which is presumably where the patron saint bit came from.  He is also the patron saint of mixed-race people and those who seek to promote racial harmony, inn-keepers and public health workers, so he has got his work cut out.  

Because of his mixed race, the only choice open to Martin was to ask the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to accept him as a "donado", a volunteer who performed menial tasks in the monastery in return for the privilege of wearing the habit and living in the religious community. At the age of 15 he asked for admission to the Dominican Convent of the Rosary in Lima and was received first as a servant boy, and as his duties grew, an almoner. He was to remain there al his life as a barber, farm labourer, almoner, and infirmarian, amongst other things.  Martin had a great desire to go off to some foreign mission and thus earn the palm of martyrdom. However, since this was not possible, he made a martyrdom out of his body, devoting himself to ceaseless and severe penances.

He was noted for work on behalf of the poor, establishing an orphanage and a children's hospital. He maintained his austere lifestyle, which included fasting and abstaining from meat. Among the many miracles attributed to him were those of levitation, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, instantaneous cures, and an ability to communicate with animals. His concern was shown equally to humans and to animals, including vermin, and he maintained a cats and dogs hospital at his sister's house, presumably with her permission!

After eight years at Holy Rosary, the prior, Juan de Lorenzana, decided to turn a blind eye to the law and permit Martin to take his vows as a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic. But not all the inhabitants of the Priory were as easy-going as Prior de Lorenzana. One of the novices called Martin a “mulatto dog.” And one of the priests mocked him for being illegitimate and descended from slaves.

When de Porres was 34, Martin was assigned to the infirmary, where he was placed in charge and would remain in service until his death at the age of 59. He was known for his care of the sick. It was not long before miracles were beginning to be  attributed to him. He also cared for the sick outside his convent, often bringing them healing with only a simple glass of water. He ministered without distinction to slaves and nobles alike. One day he took in an aged beggar, covered with ulcers and almost naked. One of his colleagues reproved him, but Martin replied: “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness."

When an epidemic struck Lima, there were sixty friars who were sick, many of them novices, and they were all shut up in a distant and locked section of the convent, separated from the remainder, to try and contain the disease. Martin is said to have passed through the locked doors to care for them, a phenomenon which was reported more than once. Others, too, saw him suddenly beside them without the doors having been opened. Martin continued to allow the sick into the convent until the Provincial Superior, alarmed by the threat of contagion, forbade him to continue the practice. One day, he found a poor Indian, bleeding to death from a dagger wound, on the street, and took him to his own room until he could transport him to his sister’s hospice. The prior, when he heard of this, reprimanded de Porres for disobedience. St Martin replied: “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” Realising he had been outflanked, the prior gave him liberty to follow his own inclinations about dispensing charity from then on.

He never left his native city, yet even during his lifetime he was seen elsewhere, in regions as far distant as Africa, China, Algeria and Japan. An African slave who had been in irons said he had recognised Martin when he came to relieve and console him, telling them of heaven. When later the same slave saw him in Peru, he was very happy to meet him again and asked him if he had had a good voyage; only later did he learn that St Martin had never left Lima.

The most well-known story connected with St Martin concerns a group of mice that infested the monastery's collection of fine linen robes. Martin resisted the plans of the other monks to put down poison for the mice. One day Martin caught one of the mice in the act, and decided to give it a stern talking to, saying

"Little brothers, why are you and your companions doing so much harm to the things belonging to the sick? Look; I shall not kill you, but you are to assemble all your friends and lead them to the far end of the garden. Every day I will bring you food, if you leave the wardrobe alone!”

Fortunately, it seems, the mouse spoke Spanish and understood what was required of it, allowing St Martin to lead a Pied Piper-like mouse parade toward their new abode. Both the mice and Martin kept their word, and the closet infestation was solved for good. I was trying to shoehorn in a joke here about gay mice coming out of the closet, but failed.

By the time he died, on November 3, 1639, he had won the esteem and affection of his fellow Dominicans as well as many people outside the priory. Word of his miracles had made him known as a saint throughout the region and as his body was displayed to allow the people of the city to pay their respects, each person in the crowd snipped a tiny piece of his habit to keep as a relic. After de Porres died, the miracles and graces attributed to his intercession were so numerous that his body was exhumed after 25 years and said to be found intact, and exhaling a fine fragrance!  That’s usually enough to kick off the process of canonisation, and he was beatified in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI and canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII.

So, that was St Martin de Porres, that was, and it seems to me that we need a few like him around today, in this world we’ve allowed to be created behind our backs, this country of neglected animals, poor, sick and needy people, and beggars in the streets, and other quaint old customs such as rickets making a comeback.  So, for once, a Saint I can relate to.  Fasting should be a spiritual choice, like it was for St Martin, and not something forced upon you by heartless and corpulent politicians who don’t stint themselves and who live high on the hog.  The bilocation would come in quite handy as well.  Two for the price of one. There’s value.  It seems that in St Martin de Porres we may at last have found someone who, unlike most MPs, actually needs a second home.

I am going to try and keep the zealous spirit that researching St Martin has brought to me through the coming week. It’s going to be a make or break week next week, I have two books to get off to press and another two to finish. Fortunately, I have a couple of offers of help which I intend to take up, and, again in the spirit of St Martin de Porres, patron saint of barbers, I need to get a haircut, as I am starting to look like a cross between Bob “the Bear” Hite, and the Maharishi Yogi, and not in a good way. 

I also have to do all of this in a day less than normal, because on Monday the electricity will be off all day while the National Grid install some new pylons or something, so I will be back to hand-inscribing manuscripts on stretched goat vellum, made from the finest stretched goats in Staples, by candlelight.

I have also had an email from Caroline Flint MP, no less, inviting me to take part in a phone conference on Labour Party policy next Wednesday teatime! I don’t know if this is a cunningly disguised membership recruitment ploy, but if it is, oh my, are *they* in for a surprise. It will probably end up being the phone equivalent of what Debbie calls one of my “and, fourteenthly…” letters. My first question will be when is Rachel Reeves going to say sorry, followed by Simon Danczuk, why does Labour already seem to have conceded the next election, why do they keep apologising for things that aren’t their fault, and why is Ed Multiband so feeble and useless. If I get that far without being cut off owing to a “technical fault”, that is. 

We need to do something to keep battering away at the buggers, because already “winter’s shadowy fingers first pursue you down the street” and it’s not going to get any better now unless we do something drastic to get their attention. We need to get to a situation where everywhere they look, there is some manifestation of the spirit of St Martin de Porres, pointing out the injustice and the inequality, forcing them to take notice. Somehow. Especially as the next election will be fought in sound bites that will make the phrase “mulatto dog” sound quite genteel.

Next week, St Martin will be my guide, then. In the meantime, with what’s left of today, the sun is shining on the garden and it actually looks quite pleasant out there, so I may go for a stooge around outside while it’s still light. After all the weather forecast did alert me to this possibility, when it said today would be unsettled, wet and windy!  

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