It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The bad weather has shown some signs of letting up, though, and the endless succession of storms that have marched like a series of conquering armies across the south and west seems to have come to a temporary halt. For us, here in the Holme Valley, this has meant days when, yes, it was still windy and raining, but has often been sunny at exactly the same time. Dodging the showers has led to many instances of soggy doggies, and rainbow-spotting.
Matilda’s been skittering about on the decking, trying to cope with the changing weather. One minute she’ll be sitting in the sun at the top of the garden steps, surveying her domain for any signs of Spidey from next door, or dicky-birds that might not have seen her. Then it starts hailstoning and she streaks past the window, belly flat to the ground and ears back, seeking the shelter of Deb’s tarpaulin over the camp cooker. As soon as the first blast of the shower has passed, she’s up at the door, meowing furiously to be let back in. This has been an oft-repeated cycle, over the last seven days.
The week started with us both barking and snuffling. Debbie’s cold was two days behind mine, but, by now, we’d both reached the disgusting stage where the cold, and all that it entails, was physically leaving us, in a raging storm of snot, phlegm, mucus, and discarded tissues. Thankfully, Debbie had already decided over the weekend that there was no way on God’s green earth she could get into College this week to do any teaching. Apart from anything else, in order to teach somebody something, you need to be able to speak to them, and see them; two things of which Debbie was incapable on Monday morning.
She was also deaf to the world, which proved to be rather inconvenient on Monday morning when I was getting out of bed and transferring to my wheelchair, and fell off the banana board onto the floor. It was my own fault, I was hurrying and trying to wing it on my own, because I knew Debbie was ill in bed upstairs and I had to get up and do stuff. I felt the chair starting to slide away from me, and instead of doing the sensible thing and going back, re-seating the board and trying again, I decided to press on regardless, figuring that one last push would take me into the chair. Sir Isaac Newton, however, had other ideas, gravity took its toll, and I ended up crashing to the floor in a blubbery mass.
I took stock. I could still wiggle everything, so I hadn’t broken anything, I guessed. I would, however, no doubt have some spectacular bruises on my arse and my elbow, assuming I could tell the difference, which is always a moot point. More than anything else, I was furious with myself for ending my long unbroken run of successful transfers: previously, I had only fallen off my banana board twice in the preceding three years. Anyway, there was nothing for it, unable to get myself up, dust myself down, and start all over again, I had no option but to call in the cavalry to come and put Humpty together again.
I dialled 999, and explained the situation, and they asked me various questions such as was I bleeding or anything, and then told me help was on the way. The only problem now was that the ambulance men would not be able to get in, because the house was still locked up, bolted, barred and chained. So, reluctantly, I would have to rouse Debbie. I shouted, but – not surprisingly, given that she was effectively upstairs in the other side of the house and had taken enough flu remedies and painkillers to stun a fairly large elephant – she failed to hear me. I tried dialling her on my mobile, and it went to voicemail, six or seven times in succession.
Soon, my attention was distracted by an ambulance man looking at me through the window, and while I was miming to him that I was locked in and he needed to go and shut under Debbie’s bedroom window, his controller called me back on my mobile, and I told her the situation and what he needed to do. Somehow, the message must have got fairly quickly to his colleague, because I could hear her standing in the front garden, yelling “DEBBIE!” as loud as her lungs would manage.
Then medic number one returned to the window and I mimed to him that I was going to try and crawl to Colin’s side door and let him in that way. I got as far as the doorway leading to the lobby when Debbie appeared, having finally been roused from her sleep of a thousand years.
I filled her in on the situation and she flitted off to let them in, and then my bedroom was suddenly filled with ambulance men and women all talking on their radio and doing that “10-24 officer down bravo echo tango bacon sandwich” type speech that you have to use by law if you are in the emergency services. I did, however, catch them telling the police to “stand down”, so it would seem we narrowly avoided having our door battered in, in order to effect an entrance, as they put it. As with all NHS operations, it took them five minutes to fix me (two of them picked me up in a sort of cross-armed firemans’ lift, as used by cross-armed firemen the world over, and dumped me in my chair) and half an hour to do the paperwork afterwards. Anyway, they went away happy, and I had signed to say that basically I still had all my legs, I wasn’t diabetic, or allergic to anything, apart from gravity, and if I died now, it was my own fault for not breathing.
Having got that crisis out of the way, I looked forward to the remainder of Monday passing in relative peace and tranquillity, in order for me to recover and “centre” myself, in the current phrase beloved of New Age psychobabble. The washing up needed doing. Having made myself a coffee, I started in on it, because it was exactly the sort of mindless task that would allow me to smooth out my ruffled mental feathers. What could possibly go wrong?
Dropping a wine glass for a start. The thing squirmed out of my grasp like a live fish, and landed on the tiled portion of the kitchen floor. I have occasionally got away with this, in the past, but this time it didn’t bounce, it shattered into a few thousand shards of shrapnel. Heaving a big sigh, I began picking up the pieces, and of course stuck one of them into my thumb. Having safely gathered the big bits, I swept up the rest, and then Debbie, cursing me for a clumsy oaf, roused herself from the couch for long enough to hoover up the dust, and order was restored.
By now, the postman had arrived, and I was looking forward to the arrival of the little desk lamp I’d ordered off Amazon to help me paint in the evenings when the light in here is dim and eye-strain is the order of the day. I’d noted that it came without a bulb, but the Amazon software did its usual thing of “people who bought this lamp also bought these bulbs”, so I’d ordered three of them, as well. It turned out, however, that the people who had ordered “these” bulbs were quixotic idiots who had ordered the wrong size, ones that didn’t fit, and so was I, for mindlessly following their example. Still, I reflected, as I put them wearily aside to sort out later, at least we now know the answer to that age-old question about “how many publishers does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, nearly one.
On her way back from the lobby with the post, Debbie caught her foot on the edge of the dog’s dish and catapulted the muttnuts in it all over the kitchen floor. I briefly considered a Munch-type scream but the moment passed and I began picking the scattered pellets up one by one with my grab-stick. I had counted 174 before Debbie got fed up of me bemoaning the fact that, since I had an honours degree from the University of London, upper second division, I shouldn’t have to do this, and joined me in restoring the remainder of them to Misty’s bowl.
By now, I was wishing I had just stayed in bed. The only bright spot of the day was that the postman had also brought our replacement hot water bottles. Because two of the old ones had perished, literally as well as metaphorically, in the ceaseless fight against the winter cold in our house, I’d ordered two new ones, which duly arrived from China, again via Amazon, complete with the following instructions sheet:
Rubber Heat Water Bag - Direction
1. Heat water bag is used in medical treatment health and common live to get warm
2 The water temperature that the heat water bag used should be around 90 degrees C. The water should be not over 2/3 than the capacity of the heat water bag.
3. After filling water, must let the air in the heat water bag out and let the screw tight. Check if there is leak water phenomenon.
4. When baby use the heat water bag, should let the heat water bag a little far from baby.
5. When the heat water bag is used or storage must avert it to be weight on or stabed, not touch sour, alkali, oil and sunlight shoot.
6. Storage heat water bag should fill a little air inside. Put it in shady environment.
7. The dirt on the heat water bag can be washed by soap water than use water wash it clean.
8. The heat water bag should not be put n the display window so long time, especially the display window in the sunlight shoot.
All of which we found predictably hilarious, although I did say at the time that there was absolutely no way in which I could instruct a Chinaman in the correct usage of a hot-water bottle (or heat water bag) either in Cantonese or Mandarin. Still, it gave us a chance to reprise all the old “Waiter, this hot water bottle is rubbery! Ah, thank you, Sir!” jokes. No doubt the Chinese find us screamingly funny, and no doubt my name means “donkey testicle” or something in Cantonese.
Still, at least the worst is over, I thought, as I trundled out to the lobby to get some coal for the stove. When the coalman delivered, he had stacked it in a stack of 6 and a stack of 8 sacks, instead of two stacks of 7. No problem, I reckoned. I could just gently slit the top sack of the 8-hgh stack and remove the coal bit by bit. Unfortunately this course of action, which sounded fine n principle, resulted in the coal moving inside the sack, destabilising the teetering mass even further and sending the 25K plastic bag crashing to the ground, narrowly missing my foot, but catching the corner of my wheelchair tray (the very one I had repaired the previous week) and bending it down out of shape. Further examination revealed that the only way it will go back again is to be put in a vice and whacked with a large lump-hammer, and if Clarks can’t do it, it’ll have to wait till Owen comes up again.
So that was Monday, and in truth, I have had better days. The rest of the week, thank God, was easier. The stock imbroglio remained an enigma, with no sign of a return of serve, so I left that cage unrattled (if I may be allowed to mix the odd metaphor). It’s just as well nothing else challenging happened, since we were both seeing the world through a haze of man-flu and spent hours dozing when we should have been working. Or in my case, painting. The elusive portfolio still remains at large in the wild somewhere, so I have decided, like Carlyle, to start again.
The pleasant highlight of the week, for me at any rate, was a trip to Radio Leeds to be interviewed by Martin Kelner for the “One-on-One” programme on Thursday afternoon. This necessitated a trip in a taxi, both ways. On the outward leg, I got into a conversation with the driver about which team I supported, and I said Hull City. He asked me what I thought about the current owner’s plans to re-brand them as “Hull Tigers”, incorporating the club’s unofficial nickname (on account of their black and amber strip) into the official name of the club. I said not a lot, and that the owners had obviously badly misjudged it, since the supporters’ club had obtained thousands of petition signatures telling him not to do it.
“I think it’s because he’s trying to get them to be big in the Asian market,” said the taxi driver, “but it’s not as if they’re Manchester United!” I was tempted to add a “Thank God”, at that point, but by now we were there, or at least his sat nav said we were. Of BBC Radio Leeds, however, there was no sign. We were parked (temporarily) outside the Northern Ballet. “Are you sure this isn’t it?” asked the taxi driver, and I assured him that my dancing days were over. Then we saw the metal BBC sign sticking out round a corner, and in a few moments he’d deposited me outside and pushed me into the foyer.
The whole thing was a very slick, very well-managed operation and I was well looked after by the BBC. I really enjoyed the interview. Martin Kelner is a knowledgeable and professional broadcaster and interviewer, and it seemed we shared some tastes in music and (more improbably) T S Eliot. Like all enjoyable experiences, it was over far too quickly, and I found myself in a different taxi, heading back to Huddersfield. “So,” said the driver, “which team do you support, then?” It must be something they learn at taxi driver college. Anyway, I found myself agreeing with this one on at least two points; one, Mourinho should have been Manchester United’s new manager and two, that Fulham were toast on toast, with a side of toast, this season. And then I was home.
Friday was the start of half-term for Debbie, since she didn’t have any classes that day – not that she’d have been in a fit state to teach anybody anything – and she was starting to make noises about maybe going off for a few days in the camper, so I made a desperate effort to try and catch up on everything else, but since I was so banjaxed by the after-effects of the cold, I ended up only achieving about a quarter of the things that I’d intended. At that point, I called it a day for the week, at least mentally, and spent Saturday painting. Debbie watched the rugby, the stove ticked away, the kitchen was warm and snug, Misty was asleep on her cushion, Matilda snoozing on the chair, and all was right with the world. Then the phone rang.
It was a paramedic from the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. He was ringing because he was looking after Deb’s dad. Grandad had got a lift with one of his mates to go and watch the National Cross-Country Championships in Wollaton Park, and somehow, the arrangement to get a lift back had fallen through, leaving him wandering alone and hypothermic in the dark, long after everyone else had gone home. Hence the encounter with the paramedics. He was fine, they reassured us, and they had organised him a taxi to come home, but they just needed someone to pay for it. His home number was ringing out unanswered and he couldn’t remember his wife’s mobile.
I filled them in briefly on some of his extensive medical history and cautioned them that he was not a well man. Then I gave them Granny’s mobile, and rang her myself to tell her not to panic when she got a call from the paramedics in a minute or two. So, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, it might really have been the end, to be stuck inside of Nottingham with a mobile phone again, except that Grandad doesn’t carry a mobile phone, a state of affairs which may need to be rectified in future. On this occasion at least, thankfully, he came to no harm. And, one way or another, the family has done its bit this week for the NHS and the long-distance taxi industry.
With so much going on here this week, and the remaining gaps being filled with coughs, sneezes, and spreading diseases, I’ve scarcely had time to comprehend any news from outside the Holme Valley, but I did note that, during the week, following on from the attack made by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who pointed out the essential immorality of benefits cuts forcing people to use food banks, a further 40 faith leaders, no less, including 27 Anglican bishops, signed an open letter dated March 5th and published in The Daily Mirror to mark the beginning of Lent, condemning the Blight Brigade for their war on the poor. The bishops, who included those of Oxford, Gloucester, Newcastle and Manchester, pointed to figures showing that 5,500 people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition in the UK last year, while records show half a million were forced to visit food banks.
In the letter, the bishops said the figures were unacceptable for “the world’s seventh largest economy”, continuing:
“We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must 'heat or eat' each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30 per cent in just five years. We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.”
“We call on government to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger.”
Responding to the bishops' calls, Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: “This letter should be a wake-up call to David Cameron.” This is the same Rachel Reeves who has publicly declared that, if they come to power, Labour will be even tougher on benefits than the Tories. Remind me again, is there a Nobel prize for hypocrisy?
The thing is, though, the debate about food banks and their causes, their virtues and vices, is at last gaining ground. Despite the attempts of die-hard Tories to focus the discussion elsewhere, or dismiss such talk as “divisive” (this, from a Junta that specialises in ‘divide and rule’) it is getting to the point where the clamour is becoming impossible to ignore. And it is a debate we urgently need to have, because according to the London Food bank Blog, the DWP are now “rationing” food bank vouchers.
Is an unofficial quota system for food bank vouchers operating at job centres? One man who called into a food bank in this London borough recently said he was told by his job centre that they’d given out 15 vouchers already that week. Persuading the staff there that he was in need was hard work. He said he did get a voucher eventually, but his experience begs a question. How many people in genuine need of an emergency supply of food are now being refused a food voucher by job centres?
How many indeed? This is a question perhaps for the enquiry on the effect of government policies on poverty, which Parliament has voted for, but which the Junta is ignoring on the grounds that it would be very embarrassing. Meanwhile, on Thursday, an all-party group of MPs launched an inquiry into the causes of UK food poverty and food bank use. The inquiry will be headed by the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, and inquiry members include Labour MP Frank Field and Tory backbencher Laura Sandys. Good luck with that. Still, every little helps, as Tesco are fond of saying, as they skip tonnes of perfectly edible food.
They could save themselves a lot of time and effort by reading the report which was commissioned by DEFRA on poverty and food bank use back in June, and which has been gathering cobwebs in someone’s in tray ever since. Finally, on Friday, it slipped out under the wire, and it’s devastating stuff, albeit entirely predictable. The Guardian reported that:
The researchers found that a combination of rising food prices, shrinking incomes, low pay and increasing personal debt meant an increasing number of families could not afford to buy sufficient food.
No shit, Sherlock. The Guardian went on to say:
Examining the effect of welfare changes on food bank use was not a specific part of its remit, says the report, which is understood to have undergone a number of revisions since early summer at the behest of the Department for Food and Agriculture and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Ha ha ha ha. You bet it has. “Revisions” consisting of Iain Duncan Smith scribbling “No” and inserting the word “Not” in red pen, at various strategic points in the text.
Still, once more we have a situation where the Church seems to be the only effective opposition, since Labour have already sad they will be worse, and conceded the debate. Beastrabban, a blogger who specialises in the benefits debate, posted a very interesting analysis of the attitude to the poor in the early days of the Church, a small part of which I reproduce below:
The Fathers of the Church believed that superfluous wealth belonged to the poor. The great medieval theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, stated that
According to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor. This is the principle enunciated by Ambrose … It is the bread of the poor you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked which you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched which you are thwarting by burying your money away.
St. Basil, in his sermon ‘On Mercy and Justice’, stated that if the rich did not making offering to God to feed the poor, they would be accused of robbery. This was reflected in another of Pauper’s statements
Withholding of alms from the poor needy folk is theft in the sight of God, for the covetous rich withdraw from the poor folk what belongs to them and misappropriate the poor men’s goods, with which they should be succoured.
Ambrose went further and stated that those, who did not provide food for the starving killed them. Pauper also made the same statement when he referred to the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
If any man or woman dies for lack of help, then all who should have helped, or might have helped, or knew the person’s plight, but who would not help are guilty of manslaughter.
Are you listening, IDS? And do the names Mark and Helen Mullins ring any bells?
ATOS, the private company which is making millions out of misery by operating the Junta’s “assessments” aimed at knocking people off benefits, has said this week it wants to pull out of the contract, citing the fact that its staff have been receiving abuse and death threats. Basically, ATOS’s stance is “we were only obeying orders” (where have we heard that one before) and the catalyst for this announcement was the UK-wide day of protest against ATOS at various centres throughout Wednesday.
The Junta replied that ATOS were rubbish anyway, and the DWP was already looking for alternatives. If you were looking for an illustration of rats fighting in a sack, look no further. And I also have to observe that, while the allegation about death threats is regrettable, if true, perhaps the attitude of ATOS staff in referring to all benefit claimants as “LTBs” (it stands for “lying, thieving bastards” in case you wondered”) may have contributed to the situation. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but perhaps ATOS should have paused to consider the numbers of people who have actually died after being declared fit for work by ATOS, and possibly even as a result of it.
And finally, no, not a skateboarding duck, but the sound of the recovery falling into a pothole, after George Osborne was forced to concede that the tax revenues and other government income expected to top £7.5bn this month by experts, actually netted £4.7bn. Still a surplus, yes, but down from last year’s £6.5bn, and attributed to the falling tax take from a faltering, stuttering economy, caused by, er, George Osborne. As I have said many times, if you owe somebody 100 apples, you do not pay them back by cutting down the orchard.
At the end of a fairly bludgeoning week, then, we woke today to St Boswell’s day, to a fine sunny morning and a howling, horizontal gale bending the trees down the valley. St Boswell, also called “Boisil”, died in 661AD and was the Abbot of Melrose Abbey. He studied under St Aidan and served as a biblical scholar. He is reputed to have trained both St Cuthbert and St Egbert. His chief claim to saintly fame seems to have been the gift of prophecy, which unfortunately didn’t extend to seeing the plague coming, since he caught it and died. ATOS then declared him fit for work.
Once again, I’ve not had a very spiritual week, and to be honest, unlike St Boswell, I failed to predict several things, to my detriment, and mostly involving the effects of gravity. What I need to do is to shake off this feeling of having a head full of cotton wool, and come through this “dark night of the body” that seems to be oppressing me these days. The feeling that I am using every atom of my energy just to get through the day. I can ill afford the time, and I am not sure Debbie is up to it anyway, but if we could get away to the Lakes for a couple of days in the camper, seeing the hills again would do me the world of good. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”. I have to say, though, that the omens are not propitious. We will have to overcome illness, inertia, lack of motivation, weather, and several practical tasks that I can’t leave undone before I go. I could certainly do to see the world in a grain of sand again, and experience infinity in an hour, something which is always easier to do, I find, when you are under the protection of the Old Man of Coniston or in the lee of Helm Crag. In the mountains, there you feel free, as T S Eliot said.
Who knows, though? If the sun shines and the wind drops, we might yet manage it. And spring is coming; Maisie’s indestructible daffodils grow stronger and higher every day, and the snowdrops are now out in the garden. En route to Leeds, I saw my first crocuses of this year. More to the point, we’re almost through February, because today, as well as being St Boswell’s day, is also Reggie day, the day we remember little Reggie, Phillip’s cat, a re-homed feral, who died on this day in 1998 and who now, I hope, sits purring with the rest of them, on the lap of St Gertrude of Nivelles. Sardines and cream are the plat du our in cat heaven, and if anyone deserved them, Reggie did. Reggie, you were remembered by those who still mss you. Sit terra tibi levis.
As for me, who knows. Last Monday was the worst day so far of 2014, a year which has been full of unpleasant surprises. I have got some steel wool under the sink. If I start knitting now, I might just manage a suit of armour by morning.