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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Epiblog for Plough Monday

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley, as we’ve continued to watch the trees thrashing about in the wind and listen to the rain hosing down the conservatory windows.  Amazingly, though, amidst all of the climate-change-chaos, I noticed the other day that there are what seem to be tiny, embryonic buds on the Magnolia by the pond, and that, in the square stone planter at the end of my wheelchair ramp, despite being totally neglected since last year and partially covered by an old analogue TV which lodged there for a few days en route to the tip, Maisie’s indestructible daffodils are once more pushing blindly through the earth. If there was ever (heaven forfend) a nuclear disaster that wiped out humankind, at least we can take comfort in the fact that a new race of mutant daffodils would colonise the earth, started by these incredible specimens of zombe-undeadness.

The birds and the squirrels have also been much more in evidence this week. When it comes to the squirrels, I’m not sure if there were hibernating, and the storms have woken them up early, or they haven’t managed to get to sleep for the winter yet, owing to the continual racket and swaying of the trees, but either way they are up, about, and foraging.  All of which has provided Matilda with a great deal of entertainment in the form of “Cat-TV” as she sits at her favourite vantage point (just inside the conservatory door) watching the birds hopping around and the squirrels scampering across the decking in a bid to beat the birds be first to the peanuts in the bowl.  She’s realised, particularly as the weather outside turned colder and crisper towards the end of the week, that it is warmer on the inside of the door, and also more of the creatures she seems to enjoy watching are in evidence than when she’s actually sitting out there, putting them off from landing.

Misty seems much more settled now that the firework season is (I hope) coming to an end. We’ve just got the Chinese New Year to go, and then we can look forward to some really adverse weather driving the yobboes indoors, where they can let off bangers in the comfort of their own sitting room, for all I care.  With her return to growing confidence, Misty has developed a parallel interest in food, so much so that she now regards any food, in any dish, as being fit for consideration and/or consumption, so I find myself currently having to “police” Matilda’s mealtimes and ride shotgun by blocking off Misty’s approach with my wheelchair until Matilda has consumed an elegant sufficiency and wandered off, leaving the dog to hoover up what’s left.  I don’t blame Misty, actually, given the choice between Muttnuts and Felix, I’d have Felix every day, probably on toast, like paté.

Freddie, meanwhile, totters on, and seems back to his normal old curmudgeonly self, so whatever aberration he had last week, it’s passed for the moment, thank God. One of the consequences of his precautionary visit to the vet was that he is now on Furosemide, the same as Grandad, and me. So now we have three old gits on Furosemide, which sounds like it ought to be the title of a play by Pirandello, but sadly, isn’t.

Debbie, thwarted by the weather in her continuing quest for Ray Mears outdoor experiences, has been  once more encumbered by the trammels of Kirklees College. As I threatened, in the meantime, I had prepared all her salary claims for January and submitted them in advance of the 20th January deadline. Needless to say the College’s payroll department rejected the claim because they have an “audit rule” not to pay people in advance; I replied that I was only submitting this claim in advance because on 20th December I had rearranged a hospital appointment to spend a day re-formatting and re-submitting claims that the College had lost, only to be told then that they wouldn’t be paid until 20th January, even though some of them stretched back to September 2013. And they were lucky I wasn’t charging them interest.  But they refused to budge, so I am to re-submit January’s claims on 20th January. With any luck, they’ll pay her twice, and then, if they do, I will deliberately take a month to process their request for a refund.

Still, the first week of term was over, and I was determined to cook something special for a meal on Thursday, our wedding anniversary.  I managed mock duck with garlic, capers, mushrooms and shallots, plus rosti, and a confit of winter vegetables. The latter used up all the remaining olive oil, but I had a brainwave and phoned Debbie as she was walking back to the camper on her way home.

“If there’s any oil on the van, bring it in with you!”

“What, cooking oil?”

I replied yes, cooking oil, as vegetables confit-ed in heavy grade diesel transmission oil tend to be rather challenging to the discerning palate, even if you grease the roasting dish first by spraying it with WD-40. Debbie is always at her most dangerous when she is bored, and this came to a head on Friday when she chided me because there were no crumpets in the bread bin. I told her that I had given up buying crumpets because the last two lots I had ordered had become first old and leathery, then furry, and I ended up feeding them to the birds. I added that we also seemed to be inadvertently stockpiling bananas, and that I had only ordered them again this week as an act of faith that she would chomp her way through them, or ask me to make her favourite marmite and banana sandwiches. She retorted to the effect that it wasn’t her fault that the weather had been too bad to set up her camping stove on the decking and do the banana version of “orphans on sticks”.

I said that, since the repeal of the Bananas Act of 1876, it was now legal to eat bananas indoors as well, and she asked me if that was some kind of joke, so I said what was and she said “re-peel … bananas?” No, I guess you really had to be there.

My own week has been fairly full on and unrelenting I am beginning to realise just how big a task it is gong to be, to pull myself up out of this slough of despond pay off my debts, get the business functioning properly again, do all of the things that need doing on the house, or at least organise them, and fight a war with my other leg against all of the other crap going on in the world at large.  It’s a bit like setting off on a long voyage and you get beyond the harbour wall and suddenly the waves lengthen and the wind gets up and the sky to windward gives every indication that she’s going to be a bit blowy before too long, and all you can do is keep her head into the wind, and ease her when she pitches, and you know this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. 

I have finally grasped the electronic nettle and decided to gather together all of the various databases into one mahoosive Microsoft Access database, segmented by market type. This will make it much easier to select people to whom to send marketing information, and will make updating much easier, plus it will save me time in seeking out the right people, as at present they are scattered all over the computer. Fair enough, but MS-Access, despite her name, is a stern dominatrix, and “access” is one of those things she only dispenses when all of her conditions have been met. Plus, mindful of the maxim “garbage in, garbage out”, I spent a lot of time on Friday chasing down the gone aways from a previous email shot so I could remove them from the new database at the point of building it – now seemed the time to sort it out, rather than just importing rubbish.  I don’t know what it was that made me check, but I did, and every email on the list was still correct and current, according to the web sites of the schools concerned. So quite why Actinic saw fit to bounce them last time, is a mystery which must remain unsolved until their tech support desk opens in the morning. What a waste of dog-farts.

I mentioned fighting a war earlier, and this week there has been no mistaking that the Blight Brigade have no intention of giving up or easing off. I wrote a letter to the Independent (which was published, much to my surprise) comparing Michael Gove’s apparent love of First-World-War military tactics, blundering ahead ever deeper into the mire regardless of the damage inflicted, with George Osborne’s similar approach to the economy. For which I was called an “unpatriotic idiot” by one of the people posting comments on the Indie web site.  It is interesting to note, by the way, that “unpatriotic” has become a derogatory term, these days, in the same way that “left wing” has.

Before anyone gets their union jack underpants in a knot, however, maybe we should just reflect on the nature of patriotism. In *either* of the two world wars, anyone who had inflicted as much deliberate and needless damage on the British economy as George Osborne has done, for purely ideological reasons, would probably have been shot for treason!

If my patriotism or otherwise was at issue, just supposing it was, can anyone tell me why I should feel in the slightest bit "patriotic", whatever that means, about the mean, nasty, bigoted, xenophobic, uncaring, compassionless mess that once-Great Britain has been allowed to become? Is this what two members of my family died for in world war one and a further member in the second world war? Is this what my Uncle spent two weeks on a raft for, after being torpedoed by a U-boat?

There are many reasons to be patriotic about England - dry stone walls, brass bands, warm beer, cricket, cathedrals, yes, even spinsters cycling to matins. But mindless morons intent on fighting to the last drop of someone else's blood (or money) is not one of them.

Unfortunately, the mindless morons have been all over the place this week. Boris Johnson has announced that he has ordered some water cannons for the police in London, no doubt anticipating a long hot summer of riots after the Mark Duggan verdict.  Since it has been pissing down for about six weeks now with no remission, and every watercourse and aquifer is swollen beyond capacity, there will inevitably be a hose pipe ban this summer, which might just upset Boris’s plans, but in any case it’s rather ironic that we can apparently afford to spend £1.5M on water cannon in an age of “austerity”, yet we can’t afford to pay firemen, who risk their lives on a daily basis, a living wage.

The Gagging Law, which prevents political lobbying by anyone other than highly-paid political lobbyists (possibly and precisely the very last people who should actually be allowed to do it) is now making its final progress.  Last week, in the Lords,  the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill reached its report stage, the penultimate phase before it gains Royal Assent, enacting it as law.

This is the law that introduces the new IPNAs (injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance) and which can impose this new ‘community service order‘ on people who have committed no crime; it will allow tenants to be evicted for alleged anti social behaviour, and it will allow the police, under the  dispersal power  to remove people from an area where their behaviour is “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or is likely to contribute to the occurrence of crime or disorder in the area”.

So, the sort of pre-emptive “arrest” and incarceration of potential troublemakers before any crime has even been committed, in advance of major public events such as the Olympics and the Royal Wedding, has now been enshrined in law, or almost. Retrospectively legalising something unjust, and contrary to almost every principle of English Law going back to Magna Carta, does not make it right, however.

Nor does the existence of secret courts. We’ve had these since March 2013, when the Liberal Democrats (oh, the irony) facilitated the passage into law of the Justice and Security (Secret Courts) Bill. The web site “Another Angry Voice” summarised it neatly:

As it now stands, defendants (or claimants in civil cases) can be excluded from the hearings where their fates are decided; they will not be allowed to know what the case against them is; they will not be allowed to enter the courtroom; they will not be allowed to know or challenge the details of the case; and they will not be allowed representation from their own lawyer, but will instead be represented (in their absence) by a security-cleared "special advocate".

So, as it stands, if you start doing something the government doesn’t like, such as writing a blog criticising all of their bad and inhuman decisions, they now have at least three ways to clobber you that they didn’t have before. If you were really unlucky, they could use all three! You don’t have to be in the army, as the saying goes, to fight in the war.

The front line, in this war we find ourselves embroiled in through no fault of our own, this year, is undoubtedly going to be benefits.  I could spend a long time explaining what I think is going wrong, but I stumbled across this explanation by a poster completely unknown to me in the comments on an online article about welfare reform, and this just seems to sum it up. Apologies for the length, as John Major said to Edwina Currie.

“The ignorance that lies at the core of Tory welfare policy reform is not an ignorance of unawareness, or an absence of knowledge, but rather one of calculated disinformation. Probably the most disgusting thing about this coalition is the deliberate spreading of lies to facilitate a systematic assault upon the sick, the poor and the disabled. They have lied to and misled the public in order to promote a squalid agenda, an agenda to dismantle the welfare state.

For those who wish to destroy the welfare state, the first move is to create ‘the undeserving poor’. By constant repetition, they construct a cultural underclass via the media, with the tabloid press, much of it owned by multi-millionaires, at the forefront. Each day they fill their pages with accounts of people “living on hand-outs,” living in ‘mansions’, ‘daring to have children’, ‘laying around doing nothing’, all the while emphasising that it’s your taxes letting these scroungers live in ‘luxury.’ By this drip drip feeding, the words ‘welfare’ and ‘scrounger’ become intertwined.

The next phase is to question the idea of a universal welfare state itself. As the welfare state is dismantled, as more and more, due to ever greater reductions in funding, the quality of these services deteriorates, the middle classes begin to ask why they are paying into a system that gives them so little back. This gradual exclusion of the middle classes from the welfare state leads to the middle classes being persuaded to seek private options to deal with old age, pensions and health care, urged on by a government that tells them that it is the only solution. And of course, as private provision takes over, the cycle of dismantling can continue. Public services now become a service solely for the poor, as the middle class abandon the system.

Why dismantle the welfare state? Who benefits from this progressive degradation of the welfare state? Obviously not the lower classes. But nor do the middle classes, as the new private systems are more expensive, often of poorer quality, and invariably far more complicated than what existed previously. No, the real reason behind the cuts is simple.

The real beneficiaries are the very rich, who no longer have to pay for services they never used anyway. And all the cuts are ideologically driven. None of it is to save money. The welfare reform bill won’t save a penny, because the costs will just be passed onto somewhere else. It’s all about crushing the welfare state. The Tories have for years hated the fact that ‘their’ taxes should be used to help the sick and the poor. Based upon no evidence whatsoever, they truly believe there is a vast horde of scroungers out there who are living a life of luxury on benefits. The most shameful thing about the Tories, though, is that to promote this idea, they peddle downright lies as truth and feed it to the masses, who regurgitate this bullshit ad infinitum”

Apart from the fact that l was always taught, by Mr James, my fiery Welsh socialist of a history teacher at school, that the correct term is “working classes” and not “lower classes”, I could not have summarised the situation better myself.

As if further evidence of the rhetorical “regurgio ad taurem excretum” were needed, you only had to look at the .Channel 4 programme which aired this week, Benefits Street, which followed, in the usual fly-on-the-wall manner, the inhabitants of a single street in Birmingham where most of the residents are recipients of some kind of welfare benefits. I could see ten minutes into the programme that it was gong to be the usual hatchet job, and so it proved.  I don’t know why people are so gullible as to believe that “reality” TV has anything to do with reality - it’s all in the edit – if I followed Iain Duncan Smith round for a couple of centuries with a camera crew I could probably get 15 seconds’ film of him behaving compassionately.

Nevertheless, the bottom-feeding mouth-breathers were out in force on Twitter after the programme:

“I want to walk down #BenefitStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scumbags”
“Set fire to #BenefitStreet”
“Why haven’t they castrated these people. Creatures #BenefitStreet”
“#BenefitStreet they need to be put down like dogs. #scum”

The authorities have demonstrated this week that they are taking a new tough line with Twitter Trolls, following the appalling treatment meted out to that woman who dared to suggest putting Florence Nightingale on a banknote. Presumably Twitter knows who the authors of the above comments are, and the police could invoke one of these fancy new IPNAs, since it would seem definitely intended “to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or is likely to contribute to the occurrence of crime or disorder” – it will be interesting to see if the police or Twitter do anything about it. They won’t, of course, because it’s open season on benefit claimants, and we’re fair game. You don’t have to be in the army, to fight in the war.

By far the most shameful evidence of this in the last few days was the letter from the DWP to the partner of one Chris Nelson, who published it on Facebook. His partner suffers from Ewings sarcoma, which is apparently nasty and hereditary/genetic, and the letter tells her at one point that he claim is not valid because the DWP  considers she has “contributed to her own condition” or some such phrase.

There is some debate, as I write, about whether the letter is genuine or not, as it does go on to contradict itself – but I have had letters like that myself  in the past from the DWP, that read as if the operator/typist selected the paragraphs at random from a standard letter, so that alone doesn’t make it a fake, I guess. As I said last night, I would like to think it is a fake, or at least a mistake, because that would indicate some shreds of compassion, but somehow, given the DWP’s track record of enrolling terminal cases onto job creation schemes, I fear it might just be for real. 

It reminds me of what Neil Kinnock said in his speech at Bridgend, on the eve of the 1983 election, and nothing much has changed for the better in the last 30 years:

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

- I warn you not to be ordinary

- I warn you not to be young

- I warn you not to fall ill

- I warn you not to get old

Prescient words, as it turned out, and though he might not have got every one of them 100% right on the nose, there’s enough there to be going on with, as my old Dad used to say.

And so we came to Sunday. Today is the feast of, amongst others, St Tatiana and St Zoticus, but I am afraid their blandishments and charms are wasted on me. It is also the first (or possibly second, I may have miscounted) Sunday in Epiphany. But it is the fact that tomorrow is Plough Monday that I find the most significant.

Plough Monday signified the real return to work in the farming year.  But they weren’t going to go back without one last hurrah, so in some cases there were church services where the plough was blessed with the words “God speed the plough” and/or processions with people dressed up as if they were Christmas Mummers in blackface, and if you didn’t contribute to their appeal for funds to go to the alehouse, you might find your front garden was “accidentally” ploughed up.  In some places they still keep up these traditions, notably in Ramsey in Huntingdonshire, where a straw bear is paraded through the streets,  in a continuation of a custom thought to have started in the 1400s.

So, work, and my ever-burgeoning to-do list, have been much on my mind of late. Given the scale of the task, it seems to me I have two options – carry on, but try and work smarter, not harder, and put in the most effort where the payoff is hardest, or give up, and accept that I have failed.  Maybe melt away into the woods like Clim O’the Clough or Robin of Loxley, only emerging where there is chance of inflicting damage via a swift ambush.  Or not even that, on the days when I feel old and cold and ill and achy and all I want to do is doze by my fire.

I’d like to say I prayed for guidance, and I got it, but nether of those would be true. I don’t know why God has forsaken me with even the fleeting comfort of his glimpsed presence, right now, but he seems to have done.  Maybe he’s watching and waiting and folding his arms, while I try and make up my mind.

But what to do? At the moment, my favourite thing is painting, since I re-discovered my paints over Christmas. I like the way it gets me “in the zone”, and on days when I feel too crabby, ill and crochety to concentrate on anything else, at least it’s a way of producing something creative, when all other avenues seem temporarily stony and barren. But it is, I am the first to admit, a bit of a cop-out, in the war in which we currently find ourselves, for me to say, yes. I will join you at the barricades once I have finished washing in this fiddly Vermeer roofscape of Delft.

Producing powerful images and being engaged with the world of telegrams and anger aren’t automatically antithetical. You have only to think of Gillray or Rowlandson in this country, and Picasso’s Guernica probably did much more to undermine Franco than any amount of earnest pamphlets from the Left Book Club.  The problem is that they all possessed something I don’t – talent! And I am probably better at expressing my righteous indignation in words, and using painting for keeping me sane (or what passes for it, these days).

There is also rather a lot of work to do. Books to finish, other people’s and my own, if I am ever going to roll this boulder of debt that fell on me back up the hill again, and painting takes time, lots of time.  Time that could probably be better spent.

It’s also rather difficult to disengage one-handedly from a struggle, since your opponents tend to take it as a sign that they are winning, and redouble their efforts.  And if we are to fight, fight, and fight again for a better country, and to see Jerusalem builded here, then the time to rest and disengage is not now, but after the 2015 election. 

So 2014 is going to be a big year for many reasons.  In the words of the strangely-named Minnie Haskins, whose poem was used by the King in his Christmas broadcast in 1939:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Meanwhile, it seems we’ve got some fields to plough. And a war to fight.

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