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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Epiblog for the Feast of St Gangulphus of Burgundy

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley, but then you knew that already. It’s turned wet and rainy, as well.  Last week’s dappled sunlight in the Lakes seems a distant memory. Since we got back, the days have been dominated by playing catch-up, and by an even more sad and overriding consideration, the health of Freddie, Granny’s little terrier.  He’d not been well for weeks, well, months really, but, like the feisty little bugger that he always was, he seemed to be able to dig out some hidden reserves and find the strength to rally.  However, his age was against him, and there was, really, only ever going to be one outcome.  He was set to go back to the vets again last Thursday, we feared the worst, and, sadly, that is what came to pass.

So, little Freddie is no more – or at least the earthly version of little Freddie. I strongly believe that, on the other side of that bright portal called death, he is even now frolicking with Tig and Lucy, and getting up to all the old tricks he used to entertain us with down here.  He wasn’t just a mountain climbing dog – although we did actually start listing out the peaks he had conquered, and it was impressive for such a small fellow – he also knew how to do cute, and to get what he wanted out of life, including invading my sister’s sleeping bag one weekend while she was staying over, when she woke up to become aware that something small and furry was struggling to join her.

He’d been off with us on many trips when we were looking after him for Granny, he’d been to Arran twice, and accompanied Debbie along the towpath of much of the Lancaster Canal, when she kayaked it six or seven years ago.  He’d climbed Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Blencathra via Sharp Edge; he’d been up Fleetwith Pike, Haystacks, The Old Man of Coniston, Helm Crag, Cat Bells, Maiden Moor and High Spy; he’d climbed Mam Tor, Whernside, and possibly Kinder Scout as well.

I also thought of the many hours he’d spent with me in his more senior years, in the camper van, waiting for Debbie and Tig, or latterly, Debbie Zak and Misty, to come back late, wet and muddy, from some hare-brained adventure or other. A while ago now, I wrote about what I thought or imagined heaven must be like, and that is the sort of heaven that I’d like to think Freddie now inhabits, and since all joys are possible in heaven, and heaven holds no time, then he could even now be simultaneously chasing squirrels, scuttling off up a mountain somewhere, and/or lying replete on the rug in front of the fire, snoring, dream-twitching and farting in the way only tired, well-fed, warm and content doggies can.

I’ve also been pondering what heaven must be like. If we each create our own niche of heaven, the way that modern physicists tell us that we each create our own reality as we go along, on the hoof, and if the heavenly universe follows that pattern, I would imagine it as a large, rambling, English country house, full of interesting rooms stuffed with strange knicknacks, comfy armchairs, and old books. It’s always midsummer, of the sort we used to have, on a stifling June afternoon with the heady scent of stocks and wallflowers and the french windows from the library are open to the garden. Everything is underscored by the music of Handel, at ambient levels, drifting, coming and going on the soft breeze.

There’s a box maze and a herb garden, and girls with long hair wander round, barefoot, dressed in Laura Ashley dresses and carrying dulcimers. It’s always 3.45pm, and someone’s just brought in a tray of English Breakfast Tea and a delicious assortment of heavenly sandwiches and home-baked cakes, butter, jam, cream and scones. Paradoxically, there is always an open, full, bottle of red wine at your elbow, and a crazed crystal goblet from which to drink it. There’s the distant sound of church bells across a meadow as the ringers practice, and the click, clock and clack, and distant shouts, of cricket being played on the green. You are looking forward to communal feasting in the great hall tonight, where there will be a fire of woodsmoke and incense, with candlelight on the portraits, music, poetry, and song. In the meantime, your favourite cats are always within reach, plump, sleek and contented, and there are dogs snoozing on the rug.

Freddie may well have only been a small dog, but he went through life thinking he was a timber-wolf. Small or not, he’ll leave a massive hole in all our lives, especially Granny’s, as she’ll miss his little presence trotting to heel, his chocolate-button nose questing, and sniffing the air.  Sleep well, little dog.

The other animals have been, largely, unaffected by Freddie’s passing; one of the few compensations for losing them after such a short period of tie is that we know they must have little or no conception of the presence of death, living every moment in the present.  As Yeats wrote:

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;

Matilda has been continuing her daily round, although her routine has been disrupted somewhat by the showery weather; you are quite likely to let her out on to the decking in bright sunshine, then hear the drumming of the rain on the conservatory roof and look up to see her standing on her hind legs outside the glass door, mewing to be let in… now! She then washes herself thoroughly and, if no-one else has claimed it, bags the corner of the settee nearest the stove, where she sleeps on her Maisie-blanket every night.

Because Granny has had so much extra hassle in terms of ferrying Freddie back and forth to the vets, and the general uncertainty over him, Zak’s been staying with us on a more or less permanent basis this week to ease the burden.  Misty seems to accept him quite philosophically – in fact, in many ways, I think she almost enjoys having another dog in the house. Apparently his presence makes her better behaved on walks as well, so generally he comes under the heading of a good thing. 

As far as the human denizens of the household are concerned, we’ve both, to a certain extent, been using work as a means of distraction this week.  None of the intractable problems has been solved, but then neither did I expect them to be.  Debbie is counting off the hours to the end of term, and I’ve been editing, formatting, writing, laying out, and doing accounts like there was no tomorrow. I’ve not kept my eye on the doings, comings and goings of the outside world, though we do now have a full set of election leaflets now, courtesy of the faithful postman. No doubt the Tories are still waging class war, the Lib Dims are helping them do it, and Labour are doing their best not to oppose it, while UKIP are probably complaining about brown people who don’t clean behind the fridge and the Greens are cooking up some lentils.  Actually, I did have to smile at the UKIP candidate who apparently said that Lenny Henry should go back to “a black country”, especially as Henry was born in Dudley – not so much “a black country” as the Black Country!

And so, after a painful and bruising week, we arrive at the feast of St Gangulphus of Burgundy. Crazy name, crazy guy.  Actually, crazy name notwithstanding, be seems to have had rather an unfair hand dealt to him, although I suppose the events of his martyrdom are what made him a saint.  I wonder how many martyrs, offered a second chance, would still make the same choices?  He is also known as St Gangolph, which is getting perilously close to Gandalf.  Gangolph goolie goolie goolie goolie watch-ah, as Lord Baden Powell might have said, if he were here right now.

Saint Gangulphus, who died 11th May 760AD, is often pictured as a Burgundian knight, with a fountain springing under his sword.  He usually holds a shield with a cross, and may occasionally be found holding the spear with which he was murdered. He seems to have copped for an unusually heavy load on the patron saint front, being responsible for unhappily-married husbands, tanners, shoemakers, children and horses, and being invoked against knee pains, sicknesses involving the eyes and skin, marital difficulties, and adultery. Not much left after that, apart from lesbians, cats and wheelybins. Actually, reading through that list, I’m surprised how many of them apply to me. Not all of them, I’m glad to say. 

His actual historical existence rests entirely on a single mention in a deed written by Pepin the Short, dated to 762AD. I love these names like Pepin the Short and Charles the Bald. The one that always cracks me up is “Ashot the Carniverous”- considering he lived in an age generally when meat-eating generally was the norm and vegans were unknown, he must have been a truly prodigious consumer of flesh, in whose presence no meat pie was safe, to have earned such a monicker.  Despite the short (see what I did there?) mention by Pepin, nevertheless, legends a-plenty have grown up around St Gangulphus.

A Burgundian courter, said to have been born into one of the most famous families of the area, Gangulphus was raised a Christian by his parents.  In youth, he was known for his chastity, honesty and propriety, and he visited churches and read religious texts.  In due course he became a landowner in his own right, being known as a model of fairness and making provision for gifts to churches and the poor.  Unfortunately, his blind spot  and ultimately his downfall turned out to be his unwise choice of a marriage partner.

As a nobleman, he was expected to take part in wars, but he also spent time in Frisia, preaching the Gospel.  He was journeying back to Burgundy when he found a property at Bassigny which had a fountain that took his fancy, and he settled there. In an outbreak of fountain-envy, which must have been a serious problem in 8th-Century Burgundy, his friends apparently mocked the fountain as being a bit inadequate, at which point Gandulphus thrust a pole into the soil. The next day, when he ordered his servant to pull it out again, fresh water gushed from the hole and soon became another, larger fountain. Yorkshire Water, please note.

All was not “well”, however, with his marriage. While he had been away, his wife had committed adultery, with a priest.  She claimed to be innocent, but Gangulphus wished her to be judged by God, and made her dip her hand into his new fountain. Predictably, her hand was scalded by the water.  Faced with the results of this trial by water-feature,  Gangulphus exiled the priest and banned his wife from the marriage bed, withdrawing to his castle at Avallon and occupying his time with penance and charitable acts.

Sadly for him, his wife soon arranged for the return of her lover, who decided to eliminate the main obstacle to their joint future together, by decapitating Gangulphus as he slept.  He must have been a singularly inept assassin, however, because he missed and hit Gangulphus in the thigh, which, given the standards of infection control in 8th-Century Burgundy, was still enough to finish him off – he lingered, then died, having had the last rites.

The priest  and Mrs Gangulphus didn’t enjoy their new-found freedom for long,  -- despite having fled the country, soon both sickened and died. Meanwhile, miracles were reported to have taken place at Gangulphus' tomb. Gangulphus' relics were translated to Varennes-sur-Amance in the diocese of Langres, where his cult developed, and later distributed to various places in France, Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland.  Some of his relics, consisting of part of his head, can be found at the Gangolfskirche in Bamberg.

So, there you have the legend of St Gangulphus, and much good may it do you. I suppose the chief lessons we can take from his life are to choose your marriage partner wisely and not to leave it to persons of restricted stature to safeguard and spread your posthumous reputation.

As for me, I think the events off this week have probably prompted a long-overdue review of who I am and what I believe. I write about Freddie being in dog heaven – or even just heaven – in the full knowledge that theologians would quibble, would tell me that animals have no souls, and to believe in a paradise for animals, or even better, one where we see them all again the other side of the trembling veil and once more enjoy their love and comfort for all eternity, would in the past have been viewed as at least risible and maybe even heretical.

Yet to me, it follows naturally; in the same way as I simply can’t believe that all of the intricate magnificence of the universe, and all of the love that is possible, and the brilliant achievements of mankind, came about by accident. Even if they evolved, something set them evolving in the first place.

Of course, set against all that intricate magnificence and those brilliant achievements are their opposites, the horrors of war, death, suffering, famine, and man’s inhumanity to man and to animals. Even worse, some of this has actually been done in the name of “religion”.

So, clearly, wherever paradise is and whatever it contains, it isn’t here on Earth, or at least if it is, it co-exists in a way win which we can’t normally see it, although we may perhaps be allowed glimpses from time to time.  And I suppose the gap between our expectations and reality could be put forward as evidence of a universe, an existence which has “fallen” from a previous, more perfect state. As Raymond Chandler wrote in Playback:

"There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don't think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I'm a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man's religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact.
On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man's finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world — how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be somehow made reasonable.
Don't tell me that honour is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behaviour pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn't have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right? And that God's days are very very long?
My self-catechising, however, doesn’t extend to an unquestioning belief that God made the world, Adam and Eve screwed it up and God had to turn a bit of himself into Jesus (in a way I struggle to comprehend, begotten not created) to come down to Earth and sort it out.  Even if this was true, and I believed  it verbatim, I couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess as to why God, with a blank canvas and all options available to him, chose to do it that particular way.

Nor do I believe, sadly, that the Bible is, in its entirety, the literal revealed world of God. Some parts of it are plainly gaga, while much of it is open to all sorts of ambiguous interpretations.  This is why I have such a problem with the Bible being used as the basis of organised morality, especially when coupled with threats of punishment and perdition, damnation and hell fire.  I’ve long believed that all morality is relative. And finally, of course, signing up to the baggage of the organised church also involves, at least in the form of the Church of England, praying for the Queen and the government. While I am sure her Majesty does a wonderful job, I draw the line at the latter, though I have often prayed that 10 Downing Street would be struck by lightning, irrespective of the occupants at the time.

So, that is why I don’t go to church, much as I admire some of the institutional good points and the inspirational buildings it possesses; these days, my church is the forest, often enough. I just fall back on the notion that whatever heaven is it must be so incomprehensible to our present state that we can’t begin to describe the joy and the mystery of it.  Heaven knows no time, so everything is possible and joy lasts eternally; I think also that from time to time, if we’re attuned, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of what it must be like, and that it also encompasses the idea of those we love (which for me, includes animals as well as people) being all around us in a sort of cloud of love that we can’t see because it’s on another plane or dimension, but they are still there, somehow, somewhere. All everywhere at once.  All things are possible in the heaven that surrounds us unseen everywhere. I have been thinking a lot about heaven lately, having added another year to my own earthly span, and if heaven exists, then this is the only interpretation of it that makes sense to me.

Which sort of brings me back to Juliana of Norwich, and, coincidentally, Freddie died on her feast day.  I realised that, some 700 years after she said it, I am probably saying the same thing – that, despite my not being able to prove a word of it, nevertheless, I believe that ultimately, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  Although sometimes, as in the last few days, God makes it damn hard for us to see what he is up to.

So, we go into next week with one less in the wolf pack. We close ranks, and we carry on. It’s too early to speculate whether Freddie will have a successor or not: he’ll certainly never have a replacement. But even now there might be some scared little dog that’s been turned out of house and home and ended up frightened and alone in a shelter somewhere, that might, at some point in the medium term future, find himself or herself introduced to a life of warm beds, dog treats, walkies and mountaineering. Who knows? God knows, I suppose, but as usual, he ain’t telling. 

Meanwhile, I think I’m going to have to start saying “why not?” more often.  So, starting from tomorrow, I’m going to question it when people tell me things can’t be done, rather than just accepting things. I don’t quite know where the idea popped up from – maybe something to do with the randomness of Freddie’s loss has spurred me on, coupled with the fact that “At my back, I always hear/Time’s winged chariot, hurrying near”.

“Why not?” is what Barnes Wallis is alleged to have said when they told him he couldn’t build a bouncing bomb. I’m not anticipating anything quite so explosive, but on the other hand, maybe it’s a question we should all be asking whenever we see things that should be better, but aren’t.  The hungry can’t be fed – why not? The homeless can’t be housed – why not? Abandoned animals can’t be saved – why not?  “Why not?” is such a great answer that I think I’m going to spend the rest of the day, while I’m potting out my marigolds, thinking of some more questions for it.  And watching out of the corner of my eye for a little brown and black presence scuttling somewhere just out of sight. Why not?


  1. Very thought provoking and strangely comforting. Thank you.

  2. Going to miss tales of Freddie. May his doggy soul romp in heaven.

  3. your "why not?" response has already been patented by Ruby, Tim's 2 yr old granddaughter as in the following example:(tim) what have u been up to? (ruby) bath ! (tim) was it nice? (ruby) I took my blue dolphin (tim) oh thAT sounds like fun! (ruby) have u got a blue dolphin? (tim) no I don't (ruby) WHY NOT?

  4. Thank you everyone for your comments on Freddie.

    Yes, children are the best in the world at asking "why not"