It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. A week of winter storms, just about sums it up. I am thankful that the extreme cold has left us alone so far (no doubt we’ll get it at the end of January, the traditional time of year for all Britain to grind to a halt when a snowflake hits the Admiralty roof) but, home insurance notwithstanding, you would have to have a heart of stone to be a householder and not sit there listening anxiously to the rumbling boom of the midnight wind, and the trees thrashing about, and the intense, penetrating rain drumming on the conservatory roof, and the plastic greenhouse being shredded even more, and the distant nameless bangs and crashes that could be something important falling off the roof, eg the chimney-stack.
The worst that happened to us this week was yet more damage to the already-dead plastic greenhouse and the bins all being blown over, so we got off lightly. Matilda decided that, in view of the external weather conditions, she would be spending an extended holiday in the garage, where – again for some reason best known only unto cats with small furry brains the size of a walnut – she spent most of Monday night. I was reminded of just why the phrase “herding cats” is used to describe every kind of pointless activity with completely random results, because that summed up my efforts to get her back into the kitchen very accurately. Eventually, I gave up and left her to it, and eventually, she got hungry and came to the door to be let in.
Misty doesn’t like the sound the wind makes when it does that booming thing. She’s OK when she’s actually out in it, but when she’s in the house and it wakes her up from her snoozing, she does still, sadly, scuttle off and curl up on my bed next door, where she feels safe. It must sound like some sort of explosion to her. The Canicalm and the DAP collar and the pet stress remedy spray are all helping, but given her extreme reaction to bangs generally, and the fact that we know she originally came from Northumberland, I wonder sometimes if, in her “stray” days, she managed to stray onto one of the many army gunnery ranges up in the Cheviots, and that’s why she’s now terrified of anything that sounds like explosions or gunfire. She is, overall, however, much better, although, as with the weather, there’s still worse to come yet, in her case with the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
So, yes, it’s been a windswept old week, but somehow we got through it. Debbie was counting down to Thursday and the end of term, and to be honest, so was I. It’s been such a punishing term, and it still had a sting in its tail, when Debbie got her payslip and found that she had only been paid for 18 hours teaching in the last month. This triggered a major quest for me (I do her admin and paperwork, to allow her to concentrate on teaching) to track down the missing timesheets and find out why they hadn’t been signed off. By Thursday, in one of those depressing rounds of copy-everyone-in emails I had got it sorted, and all I had to do was resubmit all of the missing timesheets so they could be passed to payroll.
This, to be honest, was a massive amount of extra work which I wasn’t expecting. It was compounded by the fact that when I opened up my email on Thursday morning I found a slew of orders for books from major wholesalers, undoubtedly orders where each one had an expectant customer on the other end, desperate to get whatever it was in time for Christmas. While any orders are always welcome,especially when you are that poor that the Church Mice hold regular collections for you, I did wonder why the hell they hadn’t taken the opportunity to order them at any point in the preceding 300 days, or even, heaven forfend, stock the bloody books in question, since it is all sale-or-return anyway.
There was only one thing for it. In order for everything to get done, I would have to create some new time from somewhere, so I phoned the hospital and put back my appointment (it was the day of my six-monthly check up) until 30th January 2014. I hoped this would not be to my detriment. As far as I can tell, things are pretty much the same as they were six months ago, and if they had discovered a cure for Muscular Dystrophy, I am sure I would have heard.
So, everything got done on Thursday. Films were uploaded, books invoiced and packed, timesheets re-created and submitted. Debbie got home on Thursday night and we quietly celebrated that we had made it thorough another bruising six weeks, and looked forward to a rest. I made a risotto, which is one of the ways I traditionally celebrate! Sad, isn’t it?
Friday dawned, as Fridays tend to, and it was another particularly sombre day for us, since it was five years to the day since Dusty, our old torty cat, died of old age. She was a character and a half, and it was never a dull moment while she was around. She is the only cat we have ever had where I found myself regularly having to write letters to the neighbours to apologise for her behaviour, and where I had to promise to keep her locked in one day, when they were having a special garden party and they didn’t want her to steal all the food.
Her other “party trick” was to invade the bed in the middle of the night, when you were too deeply asleep to really stop her or object, then she would worm her way down to crotch level and curl up, purring. This was fine, until she did what all cats do when they get ecstatic, stretched out her front paws and started to “make bread” with her claws. I am telling you this now, so that you don’t have to find out for yourself in person: having your scrotum used as a pincushion at 4AM is possibly the quickest and most efficient way of waking up known to humanity.
My recollections of Dusty, bless her, a great cat and now “a thing enskied and sainted”, were interrupted by my opening an email from the college regarding Debbie’s pay shortfall, thanking me for re-creating and re-submitting the missing timesheets, and indicating that all of these had now been signed off and were approved for payment… on 20th January 2014! There was no redress or appeal; the payroll office closed at 1PM that day, and would not re-open until 6th January. What a waste of dog-farts. Merry bloody Christmas, Kirklees College, you bunch of incompetent halfwits.
There was no point in raging about it, since I would have been raging into a void, but I am going to create and submit all of Debbie’s timesheets for January in advance (a practice normally frowned upon by the College) and submit them over Christmas,so that when they return to their desks on January 6th and open up their emails, they will all be sitting there in a dainty little row. And if they ask me why I have done it, I will tell them. At some length.
Saturday was, of course, the Solstice, the day when we look forward to the turning of the year and the return of the light, so some sort of celebration seemed in order. By evening, we had all gathered in the kitchen, Debbie, Misty, Matilda, Granny, Grandad, Freddie and Zak. The stove was blazing merrily, and with the heat of the cooker as well, for once the house seemed warm and cozy. Outside, yet another chaos of wind and rain was rampaging through the garden. Inside, we had Allegri on the CD, incense wafting, and cooking smells. It was like the Vatican kitchens. Anyway, I made spinach and mushroom rosti, followed by a pasta bake, and Debbie served up a pre-bought red berry pavlova thing she’d noticed in the reduced freezer at the co-op.
A convivial evening ensued, and occasionally the feasting teetered on the edge of turning into carousing. Debbie’s dad managed to knock over his glass of cider on the rug, where it formed a wet patch suspiciously close to Zak’s bottom as he curled up in front of the fire. Granny noticed it and asked if Zak had peed, and I was able to reassure her that he was not the culprit. I added that if Zak was able to pee cider, he would be a very popular dog indeed, but as it is, he can only manage Carlsberg.
After they had all gone home, Debbie decided, under the influence of three or four glasses of claret,that she would try out her new bivvy-bag. For a couple of minutes, I really did think that she was intending to sleep out in the garden, but she ended up blowing up her sleeping mat and settling down in the conservatory, where she fell asleep in the bivvy bag while watching “Match of the Day”. By 2.30AM I had given up trying to rouse her, and Matilda was snoring slightly in a tight ball on the settee, Misty was curled up next door, so I ended up taking the Solstice candle and going to bed. That was the Solstice, that was.
I was criticised last week for picking on the negative news stories and complaining about things too much, and also that my comments about Iain Duncan Smith were incompatible with “my professed Christianity”. I don’t know where that idea crept in. I have never been able to forgive people, and this is one of the major things which actively prevents me from being “a Christian”, since being “a Christian” is mostly about forgiveness.
As to what I am, like poor mad John Clare, I know not: I was baptised in the Church of England, became a regular attender at the Methodist Church while a member of the Boys’ Brigade, almost became a Roman Catholic while at University, although strangely enough, I concurrently hung about with a group of what would, these days, undoubtedly be called Wiccans or Pagans; became interested in Zen in the late 1970s (who didn’t) and then fell into desuetude for thirty years or so during which time I sought the answers to the questions which would not go away in other fields, such as popular physics – The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and The Physics of Immortality. I also started to take notice of all of the evil and injustice going on around me in the world. With Margaret Thatcher in power, it was difficult not to.
I’ve always thought – and still do – that what we call “reality” is in fact nothing of the sort, and the types of books I read back then, and the discoveries of modern physics now, seem to bear out and confirm this hypothesis more and more. But other than confirming the existence of a world the other side of the ethereal veil, I am still no nearer to puzzling out why this should be the case, what it means, and what my own part in it should be. These days, when I pray, I pray increasingly into a void where it often sounds like nobody is listening. Maybe it’s because Big G has lost patience with me and he’s waiting for me to realise that I shouldn’t be wishing ill on people who let off fireworks, or on Iain Duncan Smith, or indeed any of the other people whose actions make it demonstrably clear to me that they deserve a plague of boils. If that is the case, it’s a good job for God that he’s got all eternity at his disposal, because the Devil will have to go past the window on a skateboard before I find it in myself to forgive some of the things these evil bastards (politicians and animal abusers, to name but two) have done.
So, if anyone reading this thinks I am doing it because I think I have all of the answers, you are, my friend, sadly mistaken. I don’t even have all of the questions. I’m just washing my dirty habit in public, scratching a spiritual itch to a new pitch of rawness, and if you happen to find that process useful, too, I am happy to do it in your company. If you have a belief-system which works for you, though, makes you spiritually happy, and explains to your satisfaction all the quirks, anomalies and injustices of the universe, good for you, I’d love to hear it. This is my diary, my life, such as it is. Sad, isn’t it?
Forgiveness has been on my mind this week, as I found myself reacting with fury to the Opposition Day Debate about food banks in the House of Commons. To give you some background, Jack Monroe, a single parent from Essex, wrote a blog about hunger and how to survive and still eat on a minimal income. This became a thorn in the side of the Blight Brigade, because its immense popularity on the internet was seen by many as a standing indictment of the cruel policies of “austerity”. So much so that the Junta wound up two of their favourite tame marionettes in the press (Richard Littlejohn and Liz Jones) to have a pop at her, both of whom she smacked straight back over the pavilion for six. She started a government e-petition calling for an enquiry into the use of food banks, and it gained over 100,000 signatures, very quickly, triggering a debate on the subject in Parliament, a debate that took place last Wednesday.
Anyone who wonders for one iota of a second why I have a problem with forgiveness need only read some of the extracts of the speeches in that debate, or watch the disgraceful antics of the jeering, heckling Tories who tried to shout down Labour MPs’ stories of “austerity”-inspired hardship in their own constituencies. Ian Duncan Smith scuttled off half-way through, leaving it to his deputy, Esther McVey, to make the case. Her answer was to fuss and bluster and blame Labour:
Esther McVey: In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No. Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour. [Hansard]
In view of that statement, I assume she will be refusing her 11% pay rise, then. But there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: it is right that people should be forced to use food banks apparently – it’s some sort of necessary evil. Well, it’s evil, anyway, although the economic argument that “austerity” was either necessary, correct or effective now has more holes in it than a moth fancier’s vest.
Jack Monroe was actually there to see her motion debated, and wrote a long account of it on her own blog which probably sums it up much better than I can, because my lack of the ability for forgive would mean that in any long account I wrote of the proceedings, every other word would be a profanity. The sheer level of denial and black-is-white assertion, against a background of a 34% increase in homelessness across the UK as a whole, and a 62% increase in London, according to figures released by the charity Crisis this week, is staggering. I ask again, is there any wonder I find it impossible to forgive these people and wish them an early acquaintance with the very evils they seek to visit on others, or failing that, at least a brief trip down a disused lift-shaft. If anyone knows how to even begin forgiving these bastards, I would be seriously interested to hear it.
Anyway, if you want to know whether your MP was one of the 296 who voted on Wednesday for the proposition that food banks are necessary for us all to wean ourselves off the tedious habit of eating, while our supposed betters tuck in to Christmas dinner in their taxpayer-funded second home, Jack Monroe has helpfully printed off the list from Hansard, here. My own MP, Jason McCartney, Colne Valley (Con) is on the list, and I have already sent him a message on his Facebook page which consisted of the three words to be arranged into a well-known phrase or saying, “shame, you, on.” The Tories are quite fond of “naming and shaming”, as a concept, so I think it’s high time that they felt what it was like.
Mindful of the fact that people say that all I do here is – in effect – rave into the wilderness (and this is true) I have attempted, this week, to do something more constructive, and have started my own e-petition, to reform the jobs of MPs and make them more representative. You can read about it, and, should you wish to do so, sign it, here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/58242
In fact, even if you disagree with my own proposed solutions, but you think that the matter does need debate, the quickest way of ensuring that debate is to get that petition to 100,000 signatories. Then at least that would get it on the Junta’s radar, even if you are only signing because you think they aren’t worth another 11%!
Another reason for signing could be that they are out of touch and need a good slap. Especially the ones who, this week, quietly and without much in the way of fanfare, declined a contribution equivalent to $36million from the EU towards food banks in this country. If ever there was a victory for ideology and idiocy over human compassion, that would be a very strong candidate. Especially considering that all we normally get from Europe is the shitty end of the stick.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a very Old Testament view of justice, because I also found myself feeling yet more anger this week at the outcome of the trial of those convicted of killing off-duty soldier Lee Rigby back in the summer. I forebore from commenting on this while the trial was in progress, though anyone could see they were unlikely to get off with a caution and community service. I am aware that they still haven’t been sentenced yet, and that the criminal justice system is under enough strain from social media comments as it is, without me adding my two-pennorth in a minor key, but I hope that they get life, and that life means life.
Why do I hope this? Because, apart from the totally abhorrent nature of the crime it needs to be seen to be a just sentence in order to prevent both sides in the debate using it to foment yet more trouble and unrest. Given that two EDL members who firebombed a Mosque in Grimsby as a misguided “reprisal” for the death of Lee Rigby have just been handed down a sentence of six years for arson, the sentence on Rigby’s killers must be as severe as the law permits, given that they showed absolutely no remorse. It must be commensurate, otherwise the EDL will be starting up again with these Facebook memes about “share if you think it’s a disgrace”.
I hope, also, that the killers of Lee Rigby will not just be written off as unhinged and evil, when the cell door clangs shut on the rest of their days, unhinged and evil though they undoubtedly are; self-appointed “soldiers of Allah” but not brave enough, for instance to go and get killed in a real war in Syria, like Abbas Khan, for humanitarian purposes, and following a brand of “Islam” that only exists in the febrile minds of people like Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri, the people who take these impressionable young hotheads, mould them into killers, are just as responsible for the tragic consequences, yet walk away unscathed.
I hope that somebody will take a moment to pause and reflect why this happened. Remembering that seeking to understand something is not the same as condoning it. In the same week as they were describing themselves as “soldiers of Allah”, Cameron was in Afghanistan proclaiming that our mission was accomplished in response to questioning, and – possibly even in the same bulletin as the news of the conviction of Lee Rigby’s killers – the BBC was running a feature about how we are now controlling drone strikes in Afghanistan from bunkers here in the UK. I repeat, seeking to understand why something happens, is not the same as condoning it.
But here you have a heady cocktail. “Radical” Muslims in Afghanistan and in the UK getting uppity about our presence in that country (rightly so in the case of innocent civilians being killed by drone strikes) people like Choudary and Bakri who are more than willing to wind them up and send them out with a suicide vest because they are totally committed to fighting to the last drop of someone else’s blood; a UK media that consistently gives these wingnuts a platform as if in some way they were representative of the vast number of ordinary UK Muslims who abhor and condemn such violence, and lastly, hypocritical politicians who went along with Guantanamo, torture and extraordinary rendition (Blair, Jack Straw) or who claim the credit for something that hasn’t happened (Cameron with his “mission accomplished”).
It’s a heady cocktail, and each of its ingredients bears some responsibility. In the same way as, if you leave out the olive, a dry Martini is really not a dry Martini. You can blether on all you like about how people shouldn’t hold such beliefs, and how they are incompatible with religion and spirituality, but nevertheless they do hold such beliefs, they have access to weapons and – sometimes – explosives, and since 2001, we in the West have done everything in our power to increase their numbers and recruit and incentivise more of them.
When W H Auden wrote “September 1st, 1939” it was about the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War 2, but it’s just as relevant here, especially this stanza:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
what all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
There’s one more element in the mix, as well. People like me, who find it difficult to forgive, because that lack of forgiveness can lead to the ultimate conclusion that two wrongs might just make a right, which is a very dangerous road down which to embark. My lack of forgiveness is the very sort that feeds mad ideologies, and while I would never hack a politician to pieces in a London street in broad daylight, tempting as the idea is on occasion, you can see how it might happen. Apart from being against the law, it’s also self-defeating, though. As Mrs Thatcher, God strafe her, showed, it doesn’t matter if the person dies, it’s the corrosive, zombie-like ideology that lives on beyond the grave. That’s what you have to defeat.
Just coming back to forgiveness, however, I would like to pay a passing tribute to Lee Rigby’s family, who have shown – like that poor woman in Sheffield whose husband was killed needlessly last Christmas, on the way to play the organ at his local church – the true meaning of dignity and forgiveness, and demonstrated how far above me on the spiritual evolutionary scale they are. I cannot begin to comprehend how someone could do that, which I guess is why Big G is allegedly in charge of the universe and I am just a very minor, very temporary, rusted old cog in the works.
And finally, since it’s Christmas, we should remember the Salvation Army. Yes, the Salvation Army that does so much good at Christmas time and the Salvation Army whose brass and silver bands can often be found oom-pah-ing away in the precinct as shoppers hurry past in search of last minute bargains or the “festive KFC box meal” [yes, it really exists]. The Salvation Army that this week defended workfare and unpaid volunteering and called critics of its pro-Junta stance “offensive”.
Now, I used to have a soft spot for the Sally Army. My great aunt Alice (RIP) was a leading light in the local organisation. But on this subject, Auntie Alice, old dear, I am afraid you have got the string bag inside out, and a major rethink is needed. Stick to what you are good at, oom-pah-ing and tambourines and soup runs and leave the grinding of the faces of the poor to the experts in the Blight Brigade. They really don’t need any help. Sadly, they are already very good at it. There’s a love.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that for one week of the year, I’d let it rest and cut them some slack. Because it is Christmas, after all, right, and we should be grateful for what we have, and if ever there was a time for extending the olive branch, well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? And in truth, there has been some evidence of heartwarming “good news” stories around this week. Stories that make you think all is not lost. Stories of the kindness of strangers. A woman who found a child’s teddy left behind by accident on a train from King’s Cross to Newcastle started a campaign on Twitter and Facebook to reunite it with its owner, which successfully came to fruition this week. The teddy turned out, in fact, to be a toy lion called “Roar”, which was successfully restored to its owner.
In New Zealand, 77-year-old James Barber was rescued from potential homelessness when a Christchurch businessman stepped in and bought his house, which his landlord had put up for auction over his head, so he could live out his days in peace without fear of eviction.
And finally there was the story of little Moses the dog, who ended up at the Freedom of Spirit Trust for Border Collies, where Misty came from. Moses was an oldie, and when he was checked over on arrival by the Trust’s vet, it was discovered that he had liver cancer and his time was gong to be limited. One of the volunteers at the shelter took him home and fostered him into her own family, so for the last few months of his life he had a warm bed, good food, walks, and the companionship of other doggies in the time remaining to him. He died this week, but because of FOSTBC and the kindness of the person who took him on, he didn’t die alone, cold, hungry and frightened, he died as a much loved family pet, and all the trumpets sounded for him as he crossed to the other side.
Oh brave new world, that hath such people in it. We will be needing more of that sort of thing in 2014, especially in the animal shelters, where the "Christmas rush" happens in January and February. More of that kind, generous spirit and less of the mean, penny-pinching, narrow-minded shop-thy-neighbourliness we’ve seen so much of to date. And yes, I can hear you saying, right here right now, well, Steve, that’s all very well, but you’re a fine one to talk – you aren’t generous or forgiving to anybody, even though it’s Christmas. And you are right – sadly. But I will make this concession. The day Iain Duncan Smith and Ester McVey say sorry, and mean it, I promise, in return, to make a concerted effort to try and find some redeeming feature about them. Let’s not get carried away and use the “f” word just yet, though. It took a lot of effort even to type that sentence.
But yes – Christmas. It’s next week, as if you hadn’t realised. And I do miss the Christmases of my childhood, tramping around the lanes of Brough and Elloughton, carol-singing in the snow with the Methodist choir. Christmas Eve then was a magical time, when it was possible, just possible, that you might go out into the stable or the barn as the church clock struck midnight and find the animals kneeling in an unbidden homage to a Christ-child only they could see. As Thomas Hardy wrote in “The Oxen”:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
And that is how I end this year. Not at all certain that there is any guiding intelligence behind this blaring jumble of tricks that we call life, but hoping it might be so. Not at all certain that the problems of homelessness and loneliness and hunger that will affect so many people’s Christmas this year can ever be solved, but hoping it might be so. Not at all sure that we will ever see justice and mercy and respect and compassion prevail again in this country, but hoping it might be so. Not at all sure that we can build Jerusalem in our green and pleasant land, not even sure that we can manage to re-home and look after all the lost and abused animals, let alone the human beings, but hoping it may be so.
And as for you dear reader, not at all sure what you will be doing or celebrating over the festive period, or who with, but hoping that it brings you whatever it is you are seeking, and that you are warm, well-fed and watered, and happy, not just now, when you might expect it, but in 2014 and beyond. Please accept my wishes for the merriest of Christmases, to you and yours, hoping it might be so.
And for those who, in this long and brutal year just gone, did their best to inflict poverty, homelessness, hunger, violence, and cruelty to human and beast alike, and especially those 296 MPs on Jack Monroe's list, here’s a little Christmas message from me, via Iris de Ment, especially for you.