It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. As Christmas looms ever nearer, the race to get the remaining books out this year is obviously going right down to the wire. So, once again, I have had my head down, beavering away at various tasks, even though on some days, I couldn’t give a dam. [See what I did, there?] This was the week when nasty winter weather finally hit us, although even then we got off lightly, compared with Scotland, where winds of 100+MPH disrupted travel and caused structural damage, and the East Coast, where flooding carried away at least three houses into the sea.
Thursday was the wild and woolly day in question. Matilda looked as though she wanted to go out, so I opened the conservatory door for her. She stuck her head out into the equivalent of an icy wind-tunnel that made her eyes squint and flattened her ears to her head, and after about a second, turned tail and fled back inside to the warm. Misty, however, is impervious to weather, we have discovered – I assume it’s all those generations of Border Collie genes, living out on the high and hardy fells. Every time I let her out into the garden she does a few circuits at top speed, scattering the leaves in every direction.
The leaves were the cause of my own misfortune on “Wild Thursday”, albeit it was more annoying than dangerous. There are loads of leaves out the front way, “Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallambrosa”, in fact, and every time I go out down my wheelchair ramp for a “spacewalk” to perform some menial domestic task appropriate to my medieval life, I was tending to bring a few back in with me, stuck to the wheels of the wheelchair. So much so that the lobby was starting to look like an extension of the outside world.
In retrospect, with hindsight, a day when the weather was raging with fierce autumnal gales was probably not the best time to have attempted what I did next. I got a long handled brush and swept the leaves in the lobby into quite a substantial heap. Now all I had to do was open the outside door and quickly whisk them all back whence they had come. What could possibly go wrong?
I don’t know if you remember those plastic “snow globes” you used to be able to get, where a hapless little figure was encased in a bubble of some sort of liquid and when you shook it, a sudden snowstorm appeared to engulf them, to the endless amusement of people who had lots of spare time and liked cheap ornaments? Well, as I swung the outside door wide open, just at that precise moment, a huge gust of wind which had originally no doubt emanated from the very anus of Boreas himself, high in the stratosphere over Norway somewhere, blew straight into the lobby. I had created my very own leaf-globe, and, what’s more, all the ones I had carefully gathered together inside the lobby were now joined by several dozen more of their companions from outside. I struggled to shut the door against the buffeting blast, my eyes stinging, brushed myself down as best I could, came back inside and made a cup of tea. Which is probably what I should have done in the first place.
Still, as I say, we got off lightly. At Mossburn, Juanita’s animal sanctuary in Dumfries and Galloway, some corrugated iron roofing blew loose off one of the barns, clipping the head of one of the volunteers on the way down and necessitating a brief visit to A&E. Juanita’s email to me ended “it landed in one of the pig pens, but fortunately it missed the pig, which was unhurt”.
So, that was wild and woolly Thursday. But I am trundling on ahead of myself here. Before then, we had some slightly calmer days – weather-wise, at least. On Tuesday the wheelchair man arrived, and took away the bit which had fallen off the side of my wheelchair to use as a pattern for ordering a new one I had toyed with the idea of chucking it away several times, so I was glad I had kept it. He also effected a temporary repair to my faulty brake, so I am no longer going round in circles [literally, at any rate. Sadly, even Clarke’s can’t fix metaphors.] Gratifying as that was, the really big news on Tuesday was the arrival of little baby Isobel, born to Debbie’s little brother and his partner in the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary that morning, with a beautiful full head of black hair, according to the first photos.
So, another outlaw joins the clan. As it happens, I was looking back through some family photos in a sort of aimless, recollective mood, sparked by the arrival of baby Isobel, when I came upon one of the said brother in question, sitting next to a very young Tiggy on a sofa somewhere, possibly Debbie’s mother’s house, since it looks like none of ours. It must have been taken fifteen or sixteen years ago, and I found myself reflecting on how much stuff has been crammed into that time. Not least, Deb’s brother has grown and become a man, a father, no less; and next week, on St Lucy’s Day, 13th December, it will be two years since Tiggy died. December is a bad month for pet memorials for us, because 20th December also marks the day Dusty the cat died, five years ago this year. I tried not to let my sadness of remembrance cloud over the joy at the news of Isobel’s birth, but I’m not entirely sure I succeeded.
Of course, this week, we’ve all been preoccupied by the health issues surrounding an extremely important old gentleman who has touched all of our lives in many ways in recent years. Freddie [no, not Nelson Mandela, though he did contrive to sod up our press release] has been giving some cause for concern of late in that he now seems to have more and more of his “senior” moments, when he stands gazing into the distance as if he can’t remember whether he just jumped off the settee to pee or to go to his food bowl, or both, or neither. He will, of course, be 14 next year, which puts him at 98 in human years, so it’s inevitable, sadly, that one day in the medium term future, he may pass on into the world of light, to go and find Tig and Lucy before him. All we can do is enjoy him while he’s still here, I suppose. And if it comes to that, I often have long periods where I gaze into the distance and can’t remember whether I was going to pee or not, so he may yet outlast us all!
The adverse weather on Thursday caused the College to decide to close for the day, so that did at least give Debbie some temporary respite from the ceaseless treadmill of GCSE marking. I sometimes think very little has changed since Oscar Wilde made Lady Bracknell say:
“The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”
Debbie’s particular problem is not so much with the whole theory of modern education, but with the AQA marking scheme, which I have seen a copy of, and which is, frankly, bollocks. It’s ridiculously woolly and subjective and it’s perfectly possible, using it, for one person to grade a script as a 7 and another person to grade the same script a 4! Then of course you get someone like Debbie who starts to think well, if Candidate A’s script is a 5 there’s no way Candidate B’s can be a 5, even though she previously marked it - not having seen Candidate A’s at that time, – as a 5. So she spends hours trying to get them all ranked, instead of doing what I suspect all other teachers do, which is to take a quick squiz at it and mark it, regardless of what the other candidates have done. It drives me mad, and I have said to her “just cut corners” but it’s not in her nature, sadly.
I have told Debbie to find the person at college who is supposed to be her line manager, and say “I resign!” if it all gets too much, as I can’t stand seeing her so stressed out by all this crap. She went in to College on Wednesday prepared to do just that, but came back still employed, because that day, for some reason, College was like the Marie Celeste, and there was nobody physically there to resign to! So, for the moment, her career continues, though I can’t help but feel that in her case it’s “career” as in the sense of veering out of control, possibly with harmful consequences.
We had endured the worst, on Thursday, and we were looking forward to the possibility of a slight lie-in on Friday morning, as a sort of reward, but it was not to be. I would love to know what it was that was in such urgent need of demolition that Park Valley Mills thought it was necessary to start doing it at 7AM. These morons have blighted the entire summer with noise at inconsiderate times, and it was no different this time. Having been roused early, I decided I might as well put the time to good use and I went around gathering fallen twigs to use as kindling, yet another manifestation of my medieval world. In fact, to top that off, on Saturday, I hand-illuminated a Christmas card for Juanita. All that is missing is for me to start chanting plainsong, burning incense, eating toasted rats on sticks, and dying of plague at an early age.
In my little medieval bubble, I don’t often take much note of the news from Outremer, but there have been one or two things that caught my eye this week. Sadly, it was the usual catalogue of misery and injustice that needs to be rectified. There was some relative cause for relief, however: Theresa May singularly failed to deport Isa Muazu, because the Nigerian authorities refused to allow the private jet, chartered exclusively in the middle of the night by the Home Office at a cost of £180,000 to us, the taxpayers, to land. This left no option but to return him to the UK, and has now opened the way for a judicial review of the whole process of his appeal for asylum.
This means that Theresa May will now have to face some sort of parliamentary enquiry about how, in a time of austerity, we can afford to blue £180K on quixotic measures to prove a political point. Good. I hope they grill her slowly over a fierce flame, and if you think I am being too harsh, pause to reflect on the fact that the Home Office’s response to Muazu going on hunger strike was to send in their lawyers to the Harmondsworth detention centre to help him draft and draw up his last will and testament. Theresa May would have been better advised to put £180,000 into an ISA rather than spend £180,000 on trying to deport an Isa.
There is now a petition on the go to keep Muazu in the UK and, although I sometimes think petitions never do any good, set against that is the fact that Jack Monroe, author of the anti-austerity food recipes blog A Girl Called Jack, has succeeded in getting a Parliamentary debate on the use of food banks in the UK, after 114,000 people signed her petition on the government e-petitions site in about four days. I’m proud to say one of those signatures was mine.
No doubt the debate will be marred by the usual suspects standing up on their hind legs and braying about how poor people bring it on themselves and food banks aren’t necessary and if only the unemployed stopped being such wastrels and started knowing their place and tugging their forelocks, etc, etc. Then, having attended a token debate in order to justify their proposed 11% pay rise, they’ll be off to Le Gavroche or The Gay Hussar for lunch, pausing only to skip nimbly past the huddled forms of the homeless in the doorways of London.
But the glib bastards can’t go on being in denial for ever. There will come a day. Even if I have to wait until the day when Christ returns in his glorious majesty to judge the quick and the dead, I hope I am somehow there to see the people responsible for bringing so much misery into people’s lives in this once-great Britain being prodded into the fiery lake by demons wielding pitchforks. I hope, however, their earthly reckoning will come much sooner, and long before that day.
Shelter this week commented on the latest official homelessness statistics. They had previously been estimating that this Christmas there would be 80,000 children waking up on Christmas morning in temporary accommodation without a proper home of their own. The actual figure was 84,817.
I’ve been criticised before for using the term “evil” to describe such people as those wo comprise te present ruling Junta. When you look at some of the things they do, though, I find it difficult to coin a more apt description. “Misguided” just doesn’t cut it, and “nasty” is nowhere near strong enough. Maybe I have spent too long in the Middle Ages, but when you hear of things that are so contrary to the normal principles of humanity, fairness and justice, and you hear that they are taking place on an industrial scale, I can’t think of a more accurate term for it. Evil. If I had any doubts this week, they would have been dispelled by the case this week of the Department for Work and Pensions stopping the benefits of a war hero, Stephen Taylor, who had been selling poppies on behalf of the British Legion’s poppy appeal. Mr Taylor had his £71.20 per week Jobseeker’s Allowance suspended because he was truthful enough to tell local Job Centre staff that he’d been selling poppies outside Asda in Bury, Lancashire, and they judged that, because of that, he hadn’t been actively seeking work. Former Lancashire Fusilier Mr Taylor had served in Cyprus, Kenya and Northern Ireland. What a nasty, mean, spiteful, jobsworth, Jack-in-Office decision. Sometimes there is only one word. Evil. Oh, here’s the staff of Bury Jobcentre – lend us your pitchfork, Mephistopheles, this lot are mine.
The rest of the news was marked by yet more idiocy. Amazon announced that they are thinking of using unmanned drones to delver customer orders. What could possibly go wrong? Ask me again on the day six innocent people are killed at a wedding party in Droitwich and the head of Al Qaida in Islamabad wakes up to find a Dr Who box set on his doorstep.
And of course there was Nelson Mandela. The legacy of Mandela, like that of Margaret Thatcher, will continue to be divisive and subject to revision, and attempted revision, even by people like David Cameron who were happy enough in the 1980s to say Mandela should be hanged as a terrorist, and are now crowding round to jump on the bandwagon and say what a great statesman he was. In fact, for me, Mandela fits a common pattern of the person who sets out to use violence to achieve a political end, and ends up as part of the political process he originally decried. Whether the end (the collapse of Apartheid) justified the means (terrorist bombings of innocent people) is a matter for historians to debate. See also under Gerry Adams, Menachem Begin, Yasser Arafat.
Not that this stopped the BBC from switching to 24-hour rolling news coverage on all its channels of the street outside Mandela’s house, and dragging in every miscellaneous gumboil off the street who had ever had a nodding acquaintance with the great man to do a piece to camera. If I was one of the people who’d stood on the coast of East Anglia on Thursday, and watched my house and all my possessions tumble into the seething foam of the North Sea storm-surge, I might have felt more than a little pissed off at the BBC’s bizarre, over-the-top news agenda. As it was, I quietly postponed the press release I had been working on for Gez Walsh’s next book, Diva Dave and Fat Sue. We’re persistently ignored by the mainstream media at the best of times, and this was not the best of times.
And so, somehow, we got to Sunday, and the second Sunday of Advent. The Gospel for today is Luke 21, 25:33 which includes:
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
Somehow, the bit about the sea and the waves roaring seems very relevant to this week. Whether or not it actually means that the kingdom of God is at hand, literally or figuratively speaking, is a moot point. I’m coming to think more and more these days that if we want the kingdom of God, we’re going to have to build it ourselves; that we may – well, I may, at any rate – have been guilty of sitting here waiting for Big G to come down in a flying saucer and solve all our problems. Tempting as the supernatural vision is of Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne and David Cameron being hurled into the fiery lake, I fear we may have to fall back on more conventional democratic methods of getting rid of them. God is far too busy curating everything that ever was, is now, or shall be, to bother with UK politics. That’s why he gave us the free will to choose between good and evil. We need to decide what we want out of a country. I think a good start would be to be left alone:
…another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above…
said George Orwell in 1940. So what sort of country do we want, then? Is it too much to ask, in the 21st century, for a country with affordable homes for those who need them? A home of your own, with a fireside and a back garden or an allotment? Too much to ask for jobs that pay a reasonable wage and have a degree of security? Too much to ask that no-one sleeps out in the cold, these winter evenings? Too much to ask that no-one goes to bed hungry in Britain tonight?And that this can all be achieved somehow without there having to be acts of violence in Grosvenor Square?
Seemingly it is. I am conscious here that I am saying something I have said before, and I do so quite deliberately. And I will keep on saying it, and saying it, and saying it, until someone who can damn well do something about it listens, and damn well does something about it.
In the meantime, all we can do is resist, patch and repair, and if we can find the wherewithal to carry out acts of compassion and “pay it forward”, to do so. Remembering that even Jesus was an outcast from birth, his parents grudgingly offered shelter in a stable.
So, my prayer for next week, if I have one, is a prayer for all the kids who will wake up technically homeless. A prayer for the people under the arches. A prayer for the people who don’t know how they’ll make ends meet, Christmas or no Christmas, and whose Christmas meal, if any, will have to come from a food bank. I don’t know whether prayer does any good. I often suspect no-one is listening, and it’s a complete waste of dog-farts. But it’s all we’ve got, until we can build the new Jerusalem, brick by brick and step by weary step, until we can stoop to build it up with worn-out tools, all we can offer is to say “you’d better come, come on into my kitchen, because it’s going to be raining outside…”