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

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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Epiblog for Battle of Britain Sunday

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The first week of term, no less, and also the run up to the Autumn Equinox.  Never my favourite time of year, Autumn. I like the light, some days, when it’s sunny and the garden is bathed in mellow warmth. The sunshine in autumn is different, there’s no doubt about that.  And I like the crispness of some mornings as well. When there’s just a tinge, a tingle of frost.  But as for the rest of it, the dull days, the rain, the mist and fog, the nights drawing in, and the damp cold that gets in my bones and makes them ache, no, you can keep that.  And, of course, this time of year is the precursor to that long dark tunnel of winter, the weeks between the day the clocks go back and the winter solstice.

Debbie has started teaching again, and with a worse timetable than last year, in terms of workload. It remains to be seen whether the College’s new system for payment by registers, which kicks in after half-term, will result in her being paid either more correctly, and/or earlier, than last year.

Meanwhile, the mushroom-collecting continues. Yesterday’s two specimens were almost certainly innocent-looking morels, according to Debbie, so did I want to put them in my stir-fry? Further scrutiny of the mushroom identification book revealed that they were in fact something called Sulphur Tuft, and the picture of them had a skull and crossbones next to it.  Debbie has also been complaining that the layout of the mushroom identification book is “confusing” in that it sorts them by habitat, size, colour, etc., and it would be much better if it was laid out alphabetically, until I pointed out to her that if that was the case, you’d have to know what the mushroom was called before you could look it up.

Matilda agrees with me about the cold, murky days, and now spends more time curled up either on what used to be Misty’s bed, under the folding table in the conservatory, or on the settee next to the stove, or sometimes even on the conservatory windowsill, where she can maximise the effects of what little sun there is.  Occasionally, she comes in from the garden soaking wet, having been caught out by a sudden shower, and I dry her off with kitchen roll while she stands there purring, exactly in the same way as my mother used to dry off Ginger, at home, forty years ago, and no doubt she, in turn, learnt it from watching Granny Fenwick dry off Widgy, up Elloughton Dale, although in those days it would probably have been a real towel, rather than kitchen roll. Probably Granny Fenwick learned it from Grandma Walker, and so on. A historical succession of spoilt cats, stretching back into antiquity.

Misty’s given up coveting the lost dog bed, at least for the moment, and acknowledged the supremacy of Matilda, who appropriated it while we were away in Scotland. Misty did, however, pick up her food bowl by grabbing the edge of it in her mouth, and took it behind the settee with her the other night, when Zak and Ellie came round. A case of “You may take my beddies, but you will never take my Bonios!” Ellie has (so far at any rate) managed to avoid emulating her escapade of two weeks ago when she went AWOL, and Zak is, well, just Zak. Every time I trundle past his chair in my chair, he gives paw, and never tires of repeating the exercise. I was reminded of the time we took him off with us in the camper and he slept on the bed. At some point in the night, he must have “given paw” and I must have, three-quarters asleep, taken it, because I woke up in the morning holding hands with him.

The animals have been blissfully unaware of the turmoil going on in the world outside the Holme Valley, and many times this week, I wished I could join them, especially during the wall to wall coverage as the Scottish Referendum campaign reached a climax.  Nailing my colours to the mast one last time here, it will come as no surprise whatsoever to readers of previous blogs that I think devolution is a bad idea and has been a disaster for this country since it was foisted on us by Tony Blair in 1997.  The problem with saying this is, of course, that people automatically label you as some sort of Godawful old dug-out Colonel Blimp Little Englander who thinks that Whitehall should run everything and the peasants should know their place. 

Nothing could be further from the case, and you have only to read what I have written in the past to see this. I want to see a more just and equal society, and, especially since we have been suffering the deliberate imposition of scapegoating and division since 2010, a more compassionate society.  I also think there is a difference between things being organised on a national level, but delivered locally, by and for the people they are intended to benefit.  This is a distinction often lost on people who seem to think that a government organised by, for and on behalf of the whole UK cannot be delivered and differentiated according to local needs and priorities, because it can.  Four or five more years of “austerity” and what people have taken to calling “the status quo” is not an option, as far as I am concerned.

Nevertheless, by Thursday night, we were in a situation where Scotland may well have voted to break away from the UK. The result was expected sometime in the early hours of Friday morning, and I determined to sit up and watch it. At least there would be no more argument on either side (well, there might be, actually, but if the vote was Yes, that argument would be Scotland’s problem.)  Good luck, Scotland,  I thought, and bon voyage, if you decide to go.

Now if, if you insist that this is for the best
Well then I'll sail this ship alone
And if, if you swear that you no longer care
Well then I'll sail this ship alone

The Beautiful South more or less summed it up for me. I expected a narrow victory for the “yes” camp.  I thought independence, at least as envisaged by the SNP, would be the wrong choice, and I’ve said why in a dozen different ways, and I still do think so, but on Thursday night, that was all blood under the bridge now.  You’ve got to play it as it lays. In the end, it became clearer and clearer, as the early hours of the morning passed by on leaden feet, that Scotland was not going to vote for this version of independence at least. My own take on it was that the people with nothing to lose probably thought “what the hell, how much worse can it be” and voted “yes”,  and there were also those who had considered it all intellectually, dissected it, and come to the conclusion that yes, it might be risky, but Scotland could muddle through somehow and make a fist of it.  As I’ve said before, I think that position was incorrect, but I can respect the thought process that leads to it. The canny, risk-averse Scots, who’d examined the White Paper and found it wanting, and the people who had most to lose from a parting of the ways, voted no. And there were more of them.

The narrow victory, though, has left a bitterly divided country. I think it was Churchill who once said, famously, of an election result, “The people, the bastards, have spoken!” Or, as Shakespeare put it, probably more poetically: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that; we this way.”  It was certainly a case of “Love’s Labours Lost” for the “yes” camp.  The decision was actually the worst kind of outcome for Scotland - it has left a nation divided. The bitterness will linger. It would have been much, much better if there had been an emphatic victory one way or another rather than there just being 10% in it.  A lot of Scottish people will be hurting now, including some that I count as friends. As it happens, personally, I feel Scotland has dodged a bullet, in that the vision of "independence" they were voting for was completely barmy, and would not have delivered any of the things they want, and would have left Scotland as an economic basket case. But that's an argument for another day. Any day when you know that your friends must be upset and grieving for a lost dream is a sombre day.  By 5AM on Friday, I was ready to write my own version of Orwell:  Homage to Catatonia. So I went to bed.

Friday was, indeed, a dour and sombre day. The online forums were full of braying English hooray-Henry types but this wasn’t a day for vulgar triumphalism. Not in my name. Nobody had “won”. The best you could say was a period of acute division, nastiness and unrest had transmuted into something else, the next stage, thankfully, it seemed, without violence, although on Friday night there were ugly scenes in George Square, Glasgow, with the sectarian bigots out in force, throwing flares, singing the Famine Song, burning flags, and giving straight-arm salutes. Scotland showed what it was made of, though. On the site of the clash, by the end of Saturday, there were donations for Glasgow’s food banks, being left under a single Saltire in the square.

I could understand the despair of people who had voted “yes”. I recall having a similar discussion once, with one of my then work-colleagues, about football, of all things. When England crashed out of Euro 2004, or possibly another international competition, there have been so many; I drove to the office that day with two of those little plastic flagpoles with St George’s flag on them, sticking out of the car window. You probably remember them. My colleague said that surely, that day of all days wasn’t the day to fly the flag. I replied that the day after you’d just suffered a major defeat was exactly the day to fly the flag.  So I hoped on Friday that my Scottish friends were still proudly flying the Saltire.

There were, inevitably, accusations of vote rigging and irregularity. Even now, there is a video going the rounds on social media which purports to show a teller counting yes votes and then putting them on the no pile. It should be fairly easily to identify the woman, find her, and ask her what the hell she was doing. I tried to watch it myself, online, and my Adobe Flash Plugin crashed, which was clearly a conspiracy.  It’s just one step away from the grassy McKnoll.

I think it’s important here to take a breath and just re-group and re-assess, especially as there will be people – many people, I suspect – in England also, who will feel anger and rejection, even in the wake of a Scottish “no” vote, given that the margin of the victory was so narrow.  They may feel less welcome in Scotland, rightly or wrongly, and less likely to visit there in future. Apparently some have already cancelled pre-booked holidays. 

Throughout the latter stages of the campaign there were constant accusations of BBC bias in reporting and “scaremongering” against people who were trying to point out some of the more obvious flaws in the SNP’s strategy.  It became, by the end, the standard practice amongst the “yes” camp to deflect awkward media questions either by dismissing them as “scaremongering” or by saying, in effect, “that’s something we’ll sort out  the detail of after the referendum”.

As far as the BBC bias is concerned, Nick Robinson may well be an evil little Mekon and a former young Conservative, but at least, unlike Kay Burley, he didn’t call anyone on the “yes” side a “knob” (though I don’t doubt there must have been occasions when he was sorely tempted.) I watched the now-famous exchange between Robinson and Alex Salmond and to be honest, I thought he was just trying to get a straight answer to a fairly important question that was germane to the issue. In fact, Salmond was lucky, throughout the campaign, that the media gave him a fairly easy ride; I would love to have seen him endure a Paxman-style “did you threaten to overrule him?” session. Although, having said that, and having said some fairly harsh things about Alex Salmond in the past, I have to say I did feel some grudging admiration and respect for his act of resignation.

So there now needs to be a process of reconciliation and healing. All week I have had The Stare’s Nest by My Window by W. B. Yeats going round my head. The poem was written by Yeats in the aftermath of the Irish civil war in 1922, as part of his Meditations in Time of Civil War, and uses the image of the bees colonising the empty nest abandoned by a starling, outside the window of his tower. It is also a metaphor for the people of Ireland to unite and rebuild Ireland after the conflict, and it seems strangely apposite for today.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

And we must keep up the pressure. Firstly, Scotland needs the wherewithal promised by the leaders of both major parties (and the Liberal Democrats, though they are neither here nor there) in the run-up to the final day. There is already a petition up to pressure David Cameron to keep to his promise.  Scotland needs the fairer, more equitable, more compassionate society that the people who ticked the “yes” box thought they were voting for. As, indeed, does England. And it’s really about England that I’m writing now.  The Scottish “independence” decision throws a harsh, sharp focus back on England.  The other parts of the remaining UK will now be looking to make their own case for departing.  Inevitably, under a federalist agenda, Northern Ireland could potentially merge with Eire (though, given the history there, that particular referendum campaign will make the Scottish one look like Noddy’s tea-party) and Wales might be asking us to flood Offa’s Dyke.  Before you know where you are, we’ll be back to the middle ages where even people from adjacent villages were viewed with suspicion, if not downright hostility. “You’m be an overcomer. Them folks in Little Piddlebury be queer and different to loike what we be”.  

People are now calling for a federal England, with a written constitution. As one person put it on Facebook, “free from the yolk [sic] of Westminster.” Perhaps someone egged him on to post that, I don’t know.  The thing is, though, the logical end to that conclusion is independence for the garden shed, and each of us guarding our own little patch of potatoes with an AK-47.  There’s a reason why countries exist: it’s generally more efficient and more beneficial to organise things on a larger level. What’s the point in half a dozen hospitals each ordering bandages separately, when if they banded together (see what I did, there?) they could place a larger order and get them cheaper?  What’s the point in waiting until the invaders are coming up the village street, when if we all band together and pay taxes, we can have a navy and an air force that stops them on the other side of the Channel?

The last thing we want is yet more regional devolution, another useless layer of "local" "government" to sit alongside elected mayors and police commissioners et al. It's really quite simple. What it needs is for the Tories, especially Eric Pickles, to stop the unfair practice of making the North of England and the former Labour working class areas bear a much higher and disproportionate burden of the cuts in the rate support grant, while letting southern counties off with token reductions. Give the councils the money, and give them the power to build more social housing to replace the huge vacuum left by Mrs Thatcher’s fire-sale of our national assets.

The first step is to elect a Labour government in 2015. I know this means Miliband as prime minister, which would be a major downside, but we have to find a way to work round it. Maybe he could job-share with his brother. Labour also needs a truly visionary manifesto and they need to win the argument that Keynsian investment in public works is the route out of financial difficulty, not "austerity". They've wasted four years faffing around trying to be more Tory than the Tories, they've allowed the Scotland thing to become a massive red herring and a distraction, and they've alienated a lot of their potential once-core supporters. I'm going to have to really hold my nose to vote Labour, but it's the only way to get shot of the unelected Junta of the ConDems.

As if the idiocy of the perpetrators of the rioting in Glasgow wasn’t enough, this week the alleged perpetrators of the Manchester Dogs’ Home fire were named on social media. Someone with the intelligence of a particularly dim gnat published the name of the alleged perpetrator of the fire and now it is all over Twitter and Facebook, along with those of his alleged co-conspirators. .  

His defence barrister will even now be writing the speech that starts, "MLud, members of the jury, my client cannot possibly have a fair trial now his name has been released zzzz zzzzz zzzz." There is now much less chance of him being convicted. even if he is guilty, and he might now get off, or get a lesser sentence, because he has been named.

Secondly, I think I'm going to have to have my jaw re-wired yet again because, despite the above, apparently the police have let him out on bail. If ever there was a case for protective custody, this is one, I would have thought. In any case, even if he was still incognito, what are the police thinking of? If someone kills 43 people they don't get let out on bail. This is precisely the sort of lax, laissez-faire attitude to animal cruelty that sends the message to animal abusers that it's no big deal. Finally,  it seems apparently he may have been but one of a number of alleged yobboes who allegedly set fire to the place. If so they should all be charged as a common purpose or joint enterprise or whatever it's called, with conspiracy to commit arson. And whoever named them should be charged with contempt of court.

By the end of the week, despite having been a mere ineffectual bystander and a spectator in the pageant of history in the making, I felt like I’d spent a day in the tumble drier. By Saturday I’d at least caught up on the lost sleep, and so eventually Sunday arrived.

Today is Battle of Britain Sunday. This is another one of those rather odd meldings together of a military anniversary with a quasi-religious overtone, a bit like Remembrance Sunday, and I have similar reservations about it.  This year, because of the centenary of World War One, it has been rather overshadowed. However, I do think it behoves us to remember those who died in the fight against fascism, the more so in view of the rise of the far right again, all over Europe, not just in this country.  And also, it does us good every so often to remember what it is they were fighting for, as much as what they were fighting against. The Labour landslide election of 1945 was an emphatic endorsement that people who had spent five long years fighting a war now wanted to see a better world.

Those who died in the Battle of Britain didn’t do so for a society where we have food banks and kids going to bed hungry.  They didn’t die for a society where the NHS was dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder. They didn’t die for a society where animals are thrown away and discarded. They didn’t die for a society where the poor sleep out in the cold under railway arches and flyovers, while the rich sip Armagnac from crystal goblets.

In particular today, I was thinking of Squadron Leader B. J. E. “Sandy” Lane. Born in Pannal, near Harrogate, he joined the RAF in 1936, and was awarded the DFC for his bravery over Dunkirk during the evacuation.  The Battle of Britain saw him rapidly promoted to Squadron Leader, and his war came to an end when, on his first operational flight with his new Squadron, on 13 December 1942,  he was last seen giving chase to two Focke-Wulf 190 fighters. He never returned from this mission and was listed as missing. Lane has no known grave, having most likely been shot down over the North Sea. He was just 25. At the time of his death, the more powerful, heavily-armed FW-190 had achieved a temporary ascendency over the current version of the Spitfire, one that was not really redressed until the Spitfire Mark IX came into service, so as well as being outnumbered, his pursuit of them was also in a technically inferior machine.

Some would call it bravery, some would call it stupidity. What we call bravery is often stupidity leavened with courage anyway. The pedestrian who dashes into the motorway traffic to rescue a stray dog. The lifeboat crew that sets to sea in the teeth of a howling gale, the bloke who climbs out onto the wing of a plane to put out a burning engine with a fire extinguisher.  We owe it to the collective bravery of humanity never to stop trying to make things better for everybody, and we should also remember, at these times, when we commemorate our own dead, that there were brave men and women on both sides in the war, and we should never forget the terrible waste of young life and all the potential that it represented.

I take two lessons from this week, neither of which is overtly religious, though I like to think that Jesus, when he gets back from his holidays, does his email and clears his in-tray, wouldn’t have any trouble with either of them, were I to run them by him in what passes for my prayers these days. The first is from the final blog posting of Charlotte Kitley, who was a blogger on The Huffington Post, and who died on 16th September from stage 4 bowel cancer.

So, in my absence, please, please, enjoy life. Take it by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it. Adore your children. You have literally no idea how blessed you are to shout at them in the morning to hurry up and clean their teeth. Embrace your loved one and if they cannot embrace you back, find someone who will. Everyone deserves to love and be loved in return. Don't settle for less. Find a job you enjoy, but don't become a slave to it. You will not have 'I wish I'd worked more' on your headstone. Dance, laugh and eat with your friends. True, honest, strong friendships are an utter blessing and a choice we get to make, rather than have to share a loyalty with because there happens to be link through blood. Choose wisely then treasure them with all the love you can muster. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Life has a lot of grey and sadness - look for that rainbow and frame it. There is beauty in everything, sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see it.

The second is more of my own devising. The Scots are fond of quoting precedents from history (sometimes selectively, when it suits them) so you will often hear the Declaration of Arbroath mentioned (well, a lot more frequently than the Darien Disaster, anyway). But two can play at that game. Let me borrow some phraseology from the Declaration of Arbroath, and adapt it to my own needs:

For, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions tolerate a society which does not look after the weakest, the most deserving, and the most deserving of our compassion, be they human, or animals.

I think I might have to get that typeset and printed onto a postcard, along with the last four lines of Jerusalem. There is a lot of work to be done.

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