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

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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Epiblog for St Osburga's Day

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The snowdrops are still holding on, more daffodils are appearing even as I type, there are now catkins coming out on the branches outside my bedroom window, there is a brief haze of cherry blossom on a neighbour’s tree, and I think there may even be tiny buds on our magnolia.  Other than that of course, the rest of the garden is a complete wasteland, redolent of Vimy Ridge or The Somme after the conflict had swept over it and then moved on elsewhere.

Still, even some signs of spring are welcome, and I found myself yet again thinking of Perdita’s speech from A Winter’s Tale, about

Faire daffadils, that come before the swallow dares,
And take the winds of March with beauty.

I suppose, given that it’s somehow got to the 30th day of March without me really noticing, that we are truly half way through Lent and into those days described by the anonymous author of the 13th century Harley Lyric:

Bythuene Mersh and Averil
Whan spray beginneth to springe…

There is quite a lot about daffodils in literature, even without recourse to old Wordsworth nodding and dancing in the breeze. In fact there is quite a lot about daffodils in A Winter’s Tale, because Autolycus also sings about

When daffodils begin to peer
With hey, the doxy, o’er the dale…

But then, since the whole play can be read as an extended metaphor, where spring stands for the concepts of redemption and possible forgiveness, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by this. I have been spending my time drawing up plans for the garden, anyway, in the hope that – as far as winter is concerned – that really is it for this year. It is still a little early to hope, though – I’ve known snow at Easter before now and there was once a Yorkshire v Derbyshire cricket match at Buxton where snow stopped play in June.

Matilda has continued to welcome the advent of milder weather, and has now settled down to a fairly set daily routine, inasmuch as a cat can be said to have such a thing. First thing in the morning, when I come into the kitchen, she will be curled up on the settee next to the stove, and she often greets me with a short and unintelligible phrase in her own language. I make a fuss of her and furfle her ears while I am mending up the stove, and she retaliates by purring and head-butting me.

Eventually, she gets fed up of this, jumps off the cushion and goes and sits by her dish in the conservatory, which is her way of asking for her breakfast. Once she has stacked away a sachet of Felix, she then proceeds to the first of her daily patrols around the decking. This can vary in length from a few minutes to a whole day, depending on the weather. Or, if it’s showery, she can be in and out like a fiddler’s elbow, necessitating frequent trips to the door to allow her to come in or exit again.

By teatime, she’s normally got fed up of this and will come in and curl up on the Maisie-blanket on “her” chair next to the television, often remaining there until bedtime, when she gets fed again and then (usually) takes up her place on the corner of the settee nearest the stove, as we’re all going to bed.  Once I’ve closed everything up and turned the lights off, I commend her to the safe keeping of St Gertrude of Nivelles, and wish her goodnight, and head off to my own repose.

Such are the days of Matilda, and I was struck in setting that down by two things; one, how much of her daily routine is part of our daily routine, even though we’ve only had her for 18 months, and secondly, there are distinct similarities between greeting Matilda first thing in the morning and greeting Debbie first thing in the morning: mainly the short phrases in an unintelligible language, and the likelihood of being head-butted.

Misty Muttkins doesn’t really have a daily routine as such her time is fairly randomly divided between eating, snoozing, walkies, and trying to round things up, be it cats, other dogs (especially Freddie, but since he wanders round aimlessly, in a completely gaga state for large parts of the day, this is no bad thing) postmen, visiting authors and the coal man. It is actually quite fascinating to watch her total self-absorption as she goes into Border Collie sheepdog grandmother’s footsteps mode. The only way to restore communication is to distract her, by waving a dog-treat. Apparently, the Border Collie’s instinct to circle the flock and get round behind it was a genetic trait originally belonging to wolves, who circle their prey, and was selectively bred into the Border Collie breed over many hundreds of years, taking a detrimental trait and gradually moulding and bending it to serve man’s purpose in rounding up sheep.

Having said that, Misty’s complete ignorance of the standard Border Collie commands (away, come by, etc) and her inability to fetch back even a small stick might explain why she was initially turfed out of doors and left to her own devices. I can’t see Northumbrian farmers being particularly patient with, or tolerant of, a dog which, when you throw it a pebble on the beach, comes back with a jellyfish (deceased).  On the dog-sheep scale though, we are at least progressing slightly. We’ve gone from Tiggy, who was scared stiff of sheep and would actively go out of her way to avoid them, to Misty, who has no idea what they are.

Of the unofficial members of our menagerie, there have still been no definite sightings. Having sad that, the embryonic compost heap has once more been eaten, as have the remaining potatoes that I was trying to get to “strike” with their tubers. If it is Brenda the badger though, she sees to be a darn sight more furtive this year than has hitherto been the case. It could also be the foxes from Lockwood cemetery: we know they are there because we used be able to lie in bed and hear them barking and snuffling and making the most extraordinary sounds while mating, and once or twice we were able to return the compliment. At the moment, all we can say is we have a mysterious unidentified night-time visitor with a penchant for undercooked tuberous vegetables.

My own week didn’t exactly pan out as I had hoped. I closed last week’s Epiblog with the news that I felt that, as old daffodil-bonce Wordsworth might have put it, the world was too much with me, late and soon… and I was hoping to be able to set aside some time for quiet contemplation.  The problem with deciding to do this is that, unless you do a “Sister Wendy” and go off and live in a caravan in the woods, it is quite difficult to disengage from the world, especially if the world doesn’t want to disengage with you.  So I actually spent another week grappling with spreadsheets, figures, editing, costings, corrections, Debbie’s pay arrears, et cetera, et cetera. I was up and down like a dog at a fair, all week, with scarcely time to draw breath, let alone pray. Plus, I have lost my rosary – well, not exactly lost it, I have a pretty good idea where it got tidied away to, but it would take a major feat of urban archaeology to uncover it.

So I think we can safely cross off the life of hermetic, contemplative prayer, at least for last week. Maybe next week will be quieter, who knows I don’t see it, myself, as I am at least three weeks behindhand with everything this year, thanks to having to deal with the stock problems that still keep rumbling round, like surprise thunder in spring, some of which we also had this week.

There were, though, some moments where, though not exactly quiet and contemplative, the battle paused for a while, and I was able to savour something of special significance to me. The first of these was that, on the herbs front, all is not lost.  The herbs in the troughs outside have had a hell of a pasting from the rain and wind for weeks on end, over the winter. At least one of the troughs was completely waterlogged for days. However – and this was the bit that cheered my heart – the Comfrey, which I thought was dead as mutton, has forced a single, trembling bright green spear of a leaf through the mould and mulch of last winter, and is coming up again.  The Ladies’ Bedstraw, which had withered away to a few sticks, now also has new green bits on it, and the Soapwort, which had died back to twigs, is now putting forth green leaves again. Most startling was the Wood Avens, which appeared, still green and growing, when I tipped the standing water off the waterlogged trough: it appears, miraculously, to have continued growing underwater all through the weeks of rain and gales.

Then there was the arrival of my portrait, by the late Leslie Stettler. It had journeyed here all the way from Arizona, very kindly sent to me by her widower, John. Leslie and I had started corresponding after I wrote a poem about the Haserot Angel, the famous “weeping” monument in the Cleveland cemetery in Ohio. Leslie and her sister Christie were both Haserots before marriage. It began an unlikely correspondence which ended up with her reading Here Endeth The Epilogue and painting the portrait. I never met Leslie in real life, and the picture was done from a photograph. On seeing the original portrait, I can't get over how she has just "got" it. The photo it was done from was the one where Debbie always said I looked "as if someone had just nicked my Cornish pasty", but in fact, when it was taken in 2009, I was very ill at the time, and didn't know it, and somehow - God knows how - Leslie has even sensed and captured that.  Anyway, I felt very privileged to have it, and it is stored away safely next door until such time as we can get it properly put up on a wall. Orwell once famously wrote that by the time he was fifty, a man had the face he deserved, and certainly, looking in the mirror in the last few days before my 59th birthday, I can sympathise with that sentiment, but now at least thanks to Leslie’s skill, I can have a sort of reverse Dorian Gray effect, where the portrait stays ever youthful, and I get ever older and more wrinkly.

Those were two oases of calm in an otherwise hectic week, and the outside world has been hectic too, or so it would seem.  Talking of undercooked tuberous vegetables, the Junta and the opposition have both been busy this week. In fact, on Wednesday, it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell them apart, when the parliamentary Labour party, with the exception of thirty or so brave souls on the back benches who rebelled, shamefully voted in favour of the Blight Brigade’s proposed benefits cap. This provoked a storm of criticism from those who think (correctly, in my opinion) that it is Labour’s job to shield the weakest in society and defend them from deplorable welfare cuts. Forty or so key figures in the Labour movement and on the left signed a letter critical of Miliband, and demanding that Labour must adopt new principles, or face disaster in the 2015 election.  Quite so. It must be FOR something, and not just against the Tories. Actually, having said that, it should maybe start by looking up the meaning of the word “opposition” in any reputable dictionary.

I probably will end up holding my nose and voting Labour, as they are the only ones with a realistic chance of beating the Tories in Colne Valley, but I wish there was some way of adding “this is in no way an endorsement of their shameful, lamentable, lacklustre, weak, weasly, uncaring, stupid, careless, pathetic, vacuous, nebulous, and quite often frankly idiotic, performance in opposition since 2010″ without spoiling my vote. Plus, anyone can promise anything a year out from an election. Look at last time Labour got in, when we ended up being saddled with Tory spending plans that figured nowhere in the Labour manifesto.

In any case, until and unless Labour gets its act together, out there in front of voters who matter, this is all academic anyway. The Tories and UKIP will romp home on a tide of xenophobia and bigotry. Sadly, the party most likely to be the party that wins in 2015 would be the one that announces a complete moratorium on immigration and an immediate re-negotiation of our membership of the EU, which ain’t going to happen, but that’s what the white van men and racist pensioners think they want, and that’s what Labour has to counteract. Putting it bluntly, people who have spent the last four years listening to the mantra that there are too many brown people over here taking our jobs and houses, are not going to be impressed by a pledge to create new apprenticeships, for instance, laudable though that is.

Labour needs to stop aiming over people’s heads and target the issues that matter to people, and not concede the ground to the Tories (eg on an EU referendum) without a shot being fired. The wonks in charge of Labour policy may well think it’s lamentable that so many people have bigoted and erroneous opinions about immigration, as indeed it is, but nevertheless they DO hold these opinions, and unless Labour does something to correct and counteract this propaganda, starting NOW, in fact, starting YESTERDAY, other than just trying to be more Tory than the Tories, this lack of engagement with an issue which is seen (probably wrongly) as crucial to the electorate, and which is exploited mercilessly by UKIP, will be fatal to Labour in May 2015. Wake up!

The extent to which the insidious all-pervasive message (which actually originated as Junta propaganda, until they realised it was also unwittingly feeding support for UKIP and toned it down) that there are too many brown people over here taking all our jobs and houses has taken hold in the national psyche was demonstrated by the television debate this week between Nigel Farage of UKIP and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Turncoats.  Clegg was predictably useless and Farage trampled all over him, pausing only to reinforce the audience’s prejudices with a few carefully-selected “facts”.

The thing is, though, that all this “tough talking on immigration” and all this vying to crack down harder than the next man, does have human consequences. Mariam Harley Miller, for instance had her life turned upside down because the Home Office wants to revoke her indefinite permission to stay in the UK. She’s lost her job, and now will remain in limbo until her appeal is heard in August.  Then we have the grotesque idiocy of Theresa May hiring a private plane at the expense of the taxpayer in the middle of the night in a botched attempt to deport Isa Muazu, despite his being too ill to even stand up; we have Jimmy Mubenga, who unaccountably died while being restrained by Border Agency contracted staff, on the flight which was trying to deport him, though in his case we may yet see Justice meted out to those responsible; and we have the case of four-year-old Assia Souhalia, dragged from her bed at dawn to be deported along with her parents to an uncertain fate in Algeria.

The list goes on. 39-year-old mother of two Ama Sumani, deported to Ghana at the end of 2009, despite being under treatment for terminal cancer, treatment which could not be continued there, where she died shortly afterwards.  That was in May 2010. You could be forgiven for thinking things had moved on since then, but it’s not so:  even as I type this, final preparations are under way to deport Yashika Bageerathi from the Yarls Wood detention centre, where she has been held since March 19th. She came to the UK as a student, with her mother, younger brother and sister in 2011 to escape a relative who was physically abusive. The family all claimed asylum last summer but all four now face deportation, and because of Yashika’s age, her application was considered separately from the rest of her family and she is facing returning to Mauritius alone, without any support network and family. A legal battle rages as I type.

And that’s not all: on Mother’s day, today, here in the UK, perhaps we should be thinking about a mum who has been left to bring up her daughter alone after her American husband was denied a return the country - because he had cancer.

The Home Office ruled he had become a burden on the taxpayer and originally the NHS actually billed him £98,000 for the cancer treatment he had received so far. Lorraine Marx, 56, is now bringing her 10-year-old daughter Alexandra up alone, after her husband Ralph was forced to return to America despite having lived here for 13 years. Previously, Ralph’s lack of resident status meant that he had to re-apply at six monthly intervals, but as he was frequently abroad because of his work, it was never really an issue.  When he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012, his hospital treatment meant he was at risk of over-staying his visitor status, so he surrendered his passport and applied for residency, at which point the Home Office rejected it and the NHS billed him!

His wife, a former Royal Navy chief petty officer, claims that when her husband was taken into hospital, he actually had private health cover, but was told that because his life was at risk his treatment would be on the NHS, even though she also pointed out that Ralph technically wasn't British.

A judge upheld the family's appeal in January, but the Home Office, unbelievably, is still wasting our money contesting this decision, and Ralph continues to live in America. As a result, the couple's daughter has seen her dad, who is now in remission, only once in the past year. The NHS has since dropped its demand for payment, but the Home Office spokesman said:

"We are appealing the decision because we believe it did not apply the immigration rules correctly. "Our family rules have been designed to make sure that those coming to the UK to join their spouse or partner will not become a burden on the taxpayer and will be well enough supported to integrate effectively."

To which Ralph Marx replied:

"We are not scroungers. We can support ourselves and have done so all of our lives. But we are being treated as criminals."

So the next time you hear a politician lying that they will “get tough” and control immigration (you can tell they are lying, because their lips are moving) just bear in mind that in reality, while we are part of the EU, they can actually do very little about it, other than the sort of tinkering around the edges that produces cases such as these. I am not arguing here for a completely open door to immigration, either. I’d like to see a sensible immigration policy, controlled by us, which is humanely applied and which allows into this country people who can benefit the country and/or are willing to work to do so. I’d also like to see some rigour and some intelligence put into developing an alternative dialogue on the future of Europe, other than UKIP’s simplistic “pull out and then send all the brown people home.”

And the next time you hear some politician wittering on about the finite resources, hard times, and austerity, ask them why there aren’t enough houses, schools and hospitals to go round. What have we all been paying our taxes for, all these years. When England was a bombed and smoking wreck at the end of the last war, Atlee’s government managed to build, restore, and house, school and treat everybody.  Replacing the social housing stock sold by Thatcher would also be a very good way of kick starting the economy for real, without having recourse to the sort of smoke and mirrors employed by Osborne.

You are unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing, though.  Note the words of Ralph Marx, who felt compelled, from his cancer sickbed, to deny that his family were “scroungers”. Another of my correspondents, speaking to me this week, opined that she was heartily sick of “hard working families”. As a single person who has worked hard all her life and paid into the system, she wants to know where the recognition is for her efforts, and points out how puritanical we have become, with this idea of putting hard work above all other virtues. I’m not afraid of hard work, personally, though it is often boring and frequently unnecessary.  If I was still employing people, personally I’d want a range of talents. Yes, the ones who can grind it out have their place, but so also do the people who sit and dream and maybe have one good idea a day that either makes, or saves, the company a stack of money. But to hear the likes of Mr Osborne, we are on a fast track back to the days when you used to have to get up at four o’clock and pay’t mill owner for permission to work!

The Mental Welfare Commission this week reported on the tragic case of a woman in Scotland, identified only as “Miss DE” for reasons of confidentiality, who took her own life after failing an ATOS-administered Work Capability Assessment in 2011.  When she was informed that her £94.25 per week Incapacity Benefit would be reduced to a Jobseekers’ Allowance of £67.50 per week, she became very distressed and said she did not know how she was going to pay her mortgage. She took an overdose on New Year’s Eve.

The chairman of the MWC, Dr Donald Lyons, said:

"This lady had a lot to look forward to, she was getting married. She was being treated. She was undertaking voluntary work. She had a good social network. There wasn't anything else which we could identify that would lead us to believe that there was any other factor in her life that resulted in her decision to end her life."

No, quite. But then we live in barbaric times.  The difference between the two rates of benefit is £26.75 per week or £1391 a year. Such is the financial tightrope many people are walking these days, and such is the value of a human life to the pennypinching, cheeseparing DWP and its minions. It seems especially cheap when you contrast it with the millions wasted by the same department on not implementing the universal credit.

A correspondent of mine, a reader of this blog, once asked me, “how do you find so much to complain about?” to which my answer was that sadly, there is a never-ending stream, a litany of cruelty, stupidity and injustice, most of it emanating from the Junta, the Blight Brigade, our soi-disant rulers, elders and betters.

Anyway, one way or another this week, we arrive wearily at today, the Feast of  St Osburga.  Osburga was the 11th-century Abbess of a convent in Coventry, which had been originally been founded by King Canute, that well-known scourge of typographers. Her shrine was a popular place of pilgrimage during medieval times, because of the many miracles reported there. As usual with Saints at such a distance in time from us now, there are several variations on this. For a start, she was also known as Osburgh or Osburh, and at least one source claims that the sketchy references which have come down to us, in various documents and chronicles, are actually to a male Saint called “Osburn”. Other accounts have Cnut attacking the convent, rather than founding it! Some accounts give her feast day as January 21st. John Rous, writing in the 15th century, refers to “the holy virgin Osburh” resting at Coventry cathedral, in a tomb possibly in the south transept. She had a “noble shrine” apparently, and other references are made to her head being “encased in silver and gold”.  And, of course, to make things even more obfuscatory, all of this refers to the old Coventry cathedral, burnt to a crisp in the blitz 1941 and reduced to the ruins which now stand next to Sir Basil Spence’s replacement.

So, I don’t think there’s a lot here to detain us, as far as St Osburga is concerned, noble, saintly, holy and pious as she undoubtedly must have been. I could do with a few miracles myself next week, if she’s listening, but other than that, I don’t really have a lot to say to her.  I did contemplate making this blog about Mothering Sunday, which was the Sunday half-way through Lent, when servants were allowed time off to visit their mothers, and which became the more commercial Mothers’ Day.  It is painful for me to write about this on two levels though – one being the obvious one that my own mother is no longer with us, and – as next week’s birthday will prove, if I am spared – I have now, myself, passed the age that she was when she died, which feels a bit like sailing into uncharted waters. Also, a dear friend of mine has a mum who is very ill at the moment, and if you are of a praying bent or frame of mind, some positive vibes beamed in her direction would be greatly appreciated. You may not know who she is, but if Big G is doing his job, then he knows, and that’s all you need.

Other than that, I am looking forward to another week next week very much like last week, if “looking forward to” is the correct expression. I could, I suppose, carve out some of the peace and quiet I was looking for by including a long list of my intended prayers in this blog, except that subjecting you to a list of the names of the people on whom I wish to call down God’s benison would quickly become boring.  So, instead, I am just going to have to soldier on, and hope for some quiet times in the battle ahead, to catch up on my dialogue (or is it monologue?) with Big G.  I don’t know if he listens, but there is an old saying anyway about men in battle that there are no atheists in foxholes.  This is very true. In my experience, there are just foxes in foxholes, listening in wonder to the strange sounds emanating from semi-rural bedrooms.

Meanwhile, here in England, the nights are lighter, it is still an hour to sunset, Debbie and the dogs are back from the cricket field, the fire once again needs mending up, but the kettle is already singing on the stove.  We live in barbaric times, but the Comfrey is thrusting out a green spear of hope.  We are six jolly miners, we’re not worth a pin, but when we get a bit o’coal, we’ll make the kettle sing!


  1. sharon fountain30 March 2014 at 22:05

    Enjoyed reading your musings - suggest you invest in a pussy flap to resolve the hokey cokey issues with Matilda? And if you want a real laugh try letting Misty loose at a toddler playground - only seen that phenomenon once but boy was it funny! The dog succeeded where the parents and carers failed with the result that about 20 toddlers were neatly rounded up into a Wendy house instead of running off in 20 different directions when it was home time!

  2. Pussy flap! I love it when you talk dirty. Matilda does have a cat flap, but it's in Colin's side of the house and she never uses it. We'll have to try getting Matilda to round up the local toddlers though, tht sounds lke a winner.