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

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Sunday, 16 February 2014

Epiblog for the Feast of St Onesimus

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley, and one where I have often found myself singing along with Feste, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

When I was but a little tiny boy
With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain
A foolish thing was but a toy
For the rain it raineth every day

“The rain it raineth every day” seems to just about sum it up.  And, of course, it never rains but what it pours, to trot out the sort of thing Granny Fenwick would have said.  Actually, she always used to refer to this month as “February Filldyke”, and she’s not wrong this year. The weather has gone way beyond silly, it’s now two stops beyond Barking and well off the bus route, and it seems to be de rigueur for TV news anchors to have to present to camera while standing ankle-deep in a saturated solution of poo and sewage, lest they be thought faint-hearted, feeble, and out of touch.

Of all of us, Matilda’s life and routine has been the least disrupted by the weather, as she has developed the coping strategy, when it’s absolutely sheeting it down outside, of sticking her nose out of the conservatory door just enough to determine that today is going to be the cat equivalent of a “duvet day”, then jumping up onto Auntie Maisie’s cat blanket spread out on the chair, curling round, and going to sleep.

Even Misty, made of hardy mountain-dog stock, has become rather cheesed off at being turfed out into a garden that resembles the set of “Singing in the Rain” in order to do her necessaries. A couple of times when I have suggested that “wee-wees” might be in order, she has stopped at the open door and looked round at me with a pitying look intended to convey “If you think I am going out in that, you are out of your tiny little Chinese mind.”

So, cabin fever is the order of the day, and Matilda sits at the conservatory door watching “Cat TV”, in the form of the birds desperately trying to get the bread I put out on the decking for them, before it turns to mush and is washed away, while Misty is curled up on her dog-cushion behind the settee, with only the tip of her snout protruding to the outside world.  Occasionally, they meet in passing, and one day last week they almost “kissed” noses, while sniffing each other, before Matilda ruined the romantic moment by hissing at Misty and then uttering one of the special stock of low unearthly growls that she normally reserves for when she meets Spidey, next door’s cat, crossing our garden.

"It never rains but what it pours" more or less sums up my week as well. I don’t remember a year in recent times that has started so badly, with so many adverse challenges for me and mine.  Debbie has been battling the weather to get in and out of College, including the dusting of snow which we had on Wednesday, on top of the relentless wind and rain, and on a purely physical level, I’ve been seeing the week through a haze of man-flu and suffering as I started coming down with a cold on Tuesday which is only just leaving me as I type today, having reached the foul disgusting stage where it is coming out of my nose, my eyes, and probably my ears. Apologies if that’s too much information.

One bright spot in an other wise grim week was the unexpected visit of Mark’s son, Scott, on Tuesday, en route back from Tralee to the Isle of Arran, and having decided to do the journey via Huddersfield. As you do. We got to talking about pets, and he was telling me of his friend who owns a parrot that originally belonged to a Saudi prince in Saudi Arabia. Because it was forced to hear it several times a day, it began to mimic the Muezzin’s Islamic call to prayer, which led to a fatwa being placed on the unfortunate bird, but because its owner was a price, he managed to pull some strings and the death sentence was commuted to exile. It was shipped to Europe, where it passed through several owners before ending up on the Isle of Arran, where it no doubt continues to startle the good folk of that Isle, as they hurry to Kirk on a Sunday, with its cries of “Aaaa-allah-u-akbhar!”

My cold set in more or less a few hours after Scott had left, and much of Wednesday and Thursday was spent huddled dozing in my wheelchair, clutching a hot water bottle. The only thing I actually felt up to doing was painting, and even that was lacklustre. I still had to sort out the problem of moving the stock, however, which continued to be the thorn of my life and a bane in the flesh all week.  We have got it down from 44 pallets to 25, and of those, I have managed to find a home for 14, I think and hope.  My mood, already darkened by depression, cold, and the fact that every day it is grim, grey and pissing down, wasn’t improved by my receiving a snarty email reminding me that this agreement had resulted in “a substantial loss” for the company concerned.

I was very tempted to reply that, had I known I was going to keel over and nearly die, thus choking off any sales for between six and 18 months while I clawed my way painfully back to some sort of state of recovery, I would never have signed the bloody agreement either.  At the time, Barclays Bank, God strafe them, had just sandbagged me behind the ear with a lead-filled sock and taken away my overdraft, so, a bit like the multiple compartment design of the hull of the Titanic, it seemed like a good idea. At the time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I might also have taken issue with the notion of “a substantial loss”. To me, “a substantial loss” is when you go overnight from being a director of two companies to being a hospital patient, narrowly escaping dying, losing the ability to walk, and being diagnosed with a progressive and incurable wasting disease. That’s what I would call “a substantial loss”. A “substantial loss” is when you are lying in a hospital bed and your erstwhile colleagues conspire in your absence to let you go, on the grounds that they can save a stack of money, and no-one speaks up for you or the good things you did while you were there. That’s what I would call a “substantial loss”. The rest is just money, and could have been rectified, given time and effort, and God knows I have tried over the last three years to dig myself out of the pit into which I slid in 2010.  OK, so now I will have to do the rest of that digging without a spade. Fine. I’ll survive, I’m a Fenwick.  When you’ve had some of those sorts of substantial losses, come back, and we’ll talk.

Not that they have a monopoly over questionable redundancy practices – one of my friends, who teaches in the same field as Debbie, albeit at another College, had a “substantial loss” of her very own this week, when she discovered her class had been cancelled when one of her students texted her to tell her. When she contacted the College administration to confirm, she was given a semi-literate explanation to the effect that a letter had been put in the post to her (no doubt from an office two doors along from hers). Welcome to the wonderful world and white heat of the thrusting Cameron/Osborne recovery, driven by ideology and managed by halfwits. What a waste of dog-farts.

The worst substantial loss, for me this week, though, was the loss of one of my online friends, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  On the face of it, it was an unlikely friendship, which began when her sister wrote me an email to tear me a new one about a poem I’d written about their family monument in Cleveland, Ohio.  I had made some references to the family (intending to use them as a paradigm for all of the people in that state in the US at the time) and in any case the poem was really “about” the nature of reality and whether death is the end (cheerful stuff) and not in any way a comment on the family escutcheon.

I had no idea that there were so many descendants still alive, but there were, a whole raft of them, and they were ornery as hell at this upstart from England writing about their family. Anyway, after many emails, we all became friends, and I used to get regular bulletins from Leslie about the life she enjoyed with her husband in Florida, going off on boating trips and about their getting “gussied up” as she put it, to go out to restaurants for their happy hour.  It was obviously a different world. We did have painting in common, though, and she actually painted one of me, from one of my online pics, and I hope I entertained her in her retirement with my tales of wild and woolly weather, and the doings of the various animals here at home and characters from The Archers. I’d known she was ill because she said, in the last message I got, that she’d had to give up painting for a while, but I didn’t know how ill, and now she’s gone.  Now, that is a substantial loss, to all her family, friends, and to the world at large. She was a kind, funny, talented lady, and we’re all the worse for her not being here.

The week progressed in a wild and windy way, see above, and on Wednesday night the plastic greenhouse that wasn’t previously damaged blew off the decking and down into the garden, where it currently remains. This is more of a minor irritant than anything else, but it’s just typical of the way this year has panned out so far that it was the good greenhouse which went, and not the broken one which has already been shredded by the wind and rain this winter, yet which still stands defiantly, its structure a scarecrow of sticks, rags and tatters.

Meanwhile, in the wilder world, now that the flood waters are lapping literally and metaphorically at the doorsteps of Tory-voting, middle-England heartlands, Cameron and all the other politicians have been wading through the floods in an effort to woo “floating” voters and to be seen to be caring. This is nothing new, of course, ever since hurricane Katrina in the US, all politicians have been aware of the damage that weather can do – to their prospects of re-election. Their attention can be selective, however. When the village of Toll Bar near Doncaster flooded in June 2007, there was coverage of the event in the national media, but it was nothing special. It was only a fortnight later, when the flooding hit the Cotswolds and all those picturesque little stone villages where the BBC executives and the politicians and the reporters all have their weekend cottages, that it became a news agenda priority.

That was Tony Blair and Labour, but something similar happened this week when Cameron came out with his “money is no object” speech.  This may yet come back to bite him on the bum, and actually I hope it does, since I always enjoy seeing hypocritical politicians hoist with their own petard.  There is actually money available, from the EU, which could be tapped right now, except that Cameron also knows that to be seen to be going “cap in hand” to the EU for a grant to fix flood damage would open a very large can of Eurosceptic worms, at a time when UKIP is already snapping at his knackers, electorally speaking.

So, where is the money to come from? If the likes of the Daily Mail are to be believed, it should come out of the overseas aid budget. I have my own issues with giving aid to countries which only spend it on missile systems or gold-plated taps in the presidential palace, but I don’t see why it has to be either/or. Plus there are other potential sources, such as the money we spend internationally promoting arms sales, to name but one.  And we are a rich country, says Mr Cameron. There are times when anger makes you incoherent, and I started to write a long diatribe about this, only to discover that the blogger Jane Young had already summed it up so much better:

So, here we are. Disabled people clearly don’t matter. Poor people clearly don’t matter. Older people matter a bit, but not enough to ensure social care is properly funded. But suddenly, after lots of people and communities have been suffering from dreadful flooding for many weeks, the Thames breaks its banks. As if by magic, the Prime Minister tells us “Money is no object. We are a wealthy country”. I feel sick.

When disabled people can’t get suitable housing, we have no money. When we need accessible public transport, we have no money. When poor families can’t afford both food and heating, we have no money. When people who appeal an incorrect “fit for work” decision need money to live on while their decision is “reconsidered”, we have no money. When those who care 24/7 for family members are penalised financially, simply to remain in their homes, we have no money. When A & E departments are under severe strain and sick people are waiting hours even to get into the hospital, we have no money.

BUT, when homes in middle England are flooded, money’s no object and we’re suddenly a wealthy country.
I can’t believe, by the way, that there are still some people who say all of this weird, freak and extreme weather has nothing to do with climate change. What will it take to remove the blinkers? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wearing flashing deely-boppers, surfing a 500-foot Tsunami wave up the Severn Estuary?

Into the argument about whether money is no object stepped the unlikely figure of Cardinal-Designate Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic archbishop of England, proving once more that the only effective opposition to the Junta at the moment is the Church.

“People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure,” said the Archbishop to the Daily Telegraph “But I think what is happening is two things: one is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart. It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis. And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive. So if applicants don’t get it right, then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing – with nothing. For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace.”

My own continuing battle against the misuse of statistics took a minor setback this week when the UK Statistics Authority wrote back to me and said they didn’t accept the point of my complaint against the BBC.  They pointed out that the figures used by the BBC in their report did come from official statistics and were right, neither of which I ever disputed. It was the way in which the BBC presented it as if these were people who had been caught swinging the lead and then withdrew their claims as a result, when in fact it took no account of claims later allowed on first or second appeal.  I am not sure I have either the strength or the time right now to write to them and correct this. The BBC has not even replied to my letter of complaint or indeed acknowledged it in any way.  Time to stop paying the licence fee for a while, in order to get their attention, perhaps.

The only other newsworthy event of note this week was that I found myself agreeing with something George Osborne said. Probably for the first, and I certainly hope the only, time. It was concerning the inadvisability of Scotland continuing to use the pound sterling after “independence”, should they vote “yes”.

Looking at recent developments I have been modifying my theory about Alex Salmond and "independence". It's always been my contention that Salmond never wanted "independence" in the true sense of the word. In that respect, the vote to have a referendum originally set him back on his heels, because it meant he could no longer carry on surfing the wave of casual anti-English sentiment (for reasons ranging from Culloden and the clearances through religion to oil to football) which voted SNP on the premise that "one day" Scotland would be "free" and he would now have to actually do something about it.

If Scotland voted to be truly independent, then the SNP would find itself in the position of the Imperial Cancer Fund on the morning someone discovers a cure for cancer. Oh shit, no raison d’etre and nowhere to go... So the wily Mr Salmond comes up with plan B, in the form of “Devo Max”, whereby Scotland retains all of the advantages of being within the UK, but has yet further powers devolved to it. That having been negated by Cameron, we're now on to plan C, where an independent Scotland looks pretty much the same as it does now, but Salmond gets to cherry-pick the things that will be electorally popular.

I don't know why it should have come as such a shock to Scotland that the UK government ruled out the use of the pound after a “yes” vote for independence. The Treasury has long had a phobic dread of cross-border currency sharing ever since our inglorious exit from the EMS. Brown hated the Euro and kept us out of it (thank God) and there is no way that a free-spending post "independence" Scotland could be allowed to run wild with the £ sterling and undermine its value. It'd be like giving your credit card to Nigella Lawson's stylist.

But my latest theory is that Salmond actually secretly welcomes this development, because if he now loses the vote, he can retire safely to "Dunleading, Isle of Arran" safe in the knowledge that he did his best and he will be forever remembered alongside Bonny Price Charlie and William Wallace.

I should say at this point I would have no problem with a truly independent Scotland, with its own currency, judicial system, armed forces, diplomatic system, passport etc and a border post at Gretna. However, I suspect that would be anathema to Alex Salmond, who wants Scotland to exist in a sort of "Schrodinger" state of neither independent or not independent, or both at once, or something. You can’t have it both ways.

Personally, as I have said before, I think the whole premise of the independence vote is barmy - self determination for an indigenous people who don't even live in the place its current inhabitants are voting for. I think the whole of the UK should have voted on this, as well, especially as there are probably more "Scots" living in England than Scotland.

As well as the currency issues, there are also constitutional matters to settle - if Scotland votes “yes” in 2014, do we expel the Scottish MPs from an English parliament at that point, or at the next general election in 2015?

Much has been made of the paucity of the "better together" campaign and I agree that most of the reasons for not voting “yes” can be summed up in the obverse of that phrase, "worse apart", but I also think many of the people lining up to vote “yes” are dong so on a platform of the Young Pretender, over the sea to Skye, tartan, Braveheart, and the Proclaimers, just to "stick it to the English" without thinking it through and, actually, without thinking that there might be English people who agree with some of their historical grievances and who do want to see a happy, prosperous and contented Scotland, but not at the expense of breaking up the UK and making the future for all of us more uncertain.

Meanwhile the drear wee dragged on, and Friday brought us to valentine’s day. Let it not be said that I didn’t give my wife anything for valentine’s day, because by Friday, Debbie, too, was streaming with my cold.  I tried to do my usual valentine’s day ritual of singing Dame Durden, and collapsed into a paroxysm of coughing.

'Twas on the morn of Valentine when birds began to prate
Dame Durden and her maids and men they altogether meet.
'Twas Moll and Bet and Doll and Kit and Dolly to drag her tail
It was Tom and Dick and Joe and Jack and Humphrey with his flail.
Then Tom kissed Molly and Dick kissed Betty
And Joe kissed Dolly and Jack kissed Kitty
And Humphrey with his flail
And Kitty she was the charming girl to carry the milking pail.

Valentine’s Day also makes me think inevitably of Geoffrey Chaucer and The Parliament of Fowlis, which sets out the premise that it’s the day when all of the birds choose their mates for the coming year. I did see two magpies out the back on Friday morning, a rare outbreak of joy, so who knows, it could be true.

`Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven awey the longe nightes blake!

`Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte; --
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake --
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

Yes, welcome summer – I can’t bloody wait.  Meanwhile Sunday brought us to the feast of St Onsiemus.  I must admit I chose to make this Epiblog about him because he had such a silly name and sounded as if he might have just invented one-piece fleecy pyjama suits with a bum-flap. But he didn’t.  He was a martyr and former slave, who died in AD 68.  St Paul, the man who more or less kept the Mediterranean postal system going single-handed after Jesus was crucified, mentions Onsiemus in a letter to Philemon, as a slave in Colossae, Phrygia, who ran away.  Paul met Onsiemus in a Roman prison, and baptised him. On his release, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with his epistle, asking Philemon to accept him as:

“no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me”.

In St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Onesimus is again mentioned, as accompanying Tychicus, the bearer of the letter. The pre-1970 Roman Martyrology incorrectly identifies Onesimus with the bishop of Ephesus who followed St. Timothy as bishop of Ephesus and who was stoned to death in Rome. Other traditions maintain he was not stoned to death but was actually beheaded, and just to confuse matters further, in some traditions, his feast day is celebrated on 15th February and not February 16th.

So, there you have St Onesimus, whose chief claim to sainthood appears to be that he was some kind of personal postman to St Paul.  Sainthood by association, if you like.  Of course, it’s easy for me to scoff, as we are talking about things that happened one thousand nine hundred and thirty two years ago, things are bound to be a little sketchy.  I suppose Onesimus, if he indeed existed, must have been a holy man – more holy than me, that’s for sure!

My holiness, these days, is more holey than righteous. I don’t think I have ever felt more out of touch with spiritual matters. By the time I’ve dragged my reluctant body out of bed, across the banana board, and into the wheelchair, I’m already tired, and everything this year has been bloody, full-on, and relentless.  Painting, which I seem to have rediscovered big-style, helps to get me into the zone, but even when I am there, it seems strangely empty. I’ve more or less given up praying, except in extremis, although this week I did try and formulate a prayer for what Catholics would probably call the repose of the soul of my friend Leslie in Florida.

I miss those times when I had the feeling that there really was someone looking out for me, someone who’d got my six.  Especially when that entity was what Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickled and Dimed, called “Jesus, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.” Maybe I need to go on a retreat or something. Time spent in the mountains is never wasted. The great art giveaway, in favour of Mossburn Animal Centre, Rain Rescue, and The Freedom of Spirit Trust for Border Collies, is also stuck, now, until Deb can find the missing portfolio, something she is unlikely to accomplish in her present state, huddled in a poncho next to the stove, clutching a hot water bottle and sneezing, coughing and groaning by turns.

The room was dusty and the pipes were old
All that winter, we shared a cold
Drank all the orange juice we could hold…

Amen to that, brother Paul Simon, you must be reading my mail.  Except that in Debbie’s case it’s carrot juice. “I do it for your love”. Vaguely appropriate, in a week which included St Valentine’s day. I may cook some vegetable soup later, if Deb feels she can manage to eat it. But in the meantime, from our cosy fireside in the Holme Valley, that currently looks a lot like the Fever Hospital at Missilonghi, at the end of another week where I once more failed to connect with the infinite, failed to achieve anything here on earth, failed to save the world or even part of it, and suffered a substantial loss, of a friend I had never met in person, I am going to sign out, and maybe do some painting. All too soon it will be Monday.

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