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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Epiblog for the Feast of St Frideswide of Oxford

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  Sadly, the weather has turned dull, rainy and autumnal, though it picked up a bit on Friday, it was a reasonable day on Saturday, and, as I started typing this, earlier today, it was warm enough to have the conservatory door open (although the stove is lit), such leaves as are still on the trees were dancing green and yellow in the autumnal breeze, and it was sunshining and raining, both at once.

Matilda’s been out this morning for the first time in about 36 hours, after her epic controlled disappearance on Friday night. I refer to it as a controlled disappearance, because, although the manner of her going wasn’t exactly of her own choosing, her return certainly was.  She was pottering about in the garden on Friday afternoon at about 4pm, when Zak and Ellie arrived, because we were dog-sitting them. To put the event truly into context, however, you also need to know that Owen was here, once more helping us with the house, and specifically with dog-proofing the garden, as Ellie and Zak will be staying with us next week while Granny is off on her peregrinations, and should Ellie decide to leg it, I couldn’t very well catch her, owing to the inherent incompatibility between wheelchairs and steps.

So, Owen had just finished his efforts when Ellie arrived, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to test the dog-proofing under operational conditions.  Therefore Ellie was released into the wild, went round every inch of the garden’s perimeter, sniffing it and looking for a way out, and then saw Matilda over by the corner gate.  Matilda decided, in the words of the late, great, Michelle Shocked, that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and duly flitted off into the trees behind the house, via one of the gaps in the wrought iron gate.  What neither Matilda, nor indeed Owen, had anticipated, was that Ellie, being a small dog, of the type which simply must be carried on escalators, could also fit through the gaps in the gate, and duly did so, in pursuit of Matilda. Owen followed, although he stepped over the gate rather than going through the gap, and returned shortly afterwards with Ellie tucked under his arm like a parcel. Matilda had, very sensibly, gone to ground.

Anyway, the day wore on, and it was only in the evening that I began to become a tad concerned about Matilda, and kept checking next door to see if she’d come back though the cat flap and was once more in the position she’s currently appropriated for sleeping, in the corner of the settee under Colin’s front window. But there was no sign.  Owen, meanwhile, was labouring heroically, as always. In fact, during the course of a visit lasting just over 24 hours, including sleeping, he dog-proofed the garden, helped to get rid of the old camper van, which disappeared on the back of a low-loader to a scrapyard in Dewsbury, lopped off a number of dead and semi-dead branches from the trees out the front, and chainsawed them into logs for us, did a run to the tip to dump a load of miscellaneous old tut, fixed a dead table lamp, and took the stove apart to chip all the clinker off the riddling-plate. Plus, of course, as he always does, he gave us a much-needed boost and dose of positivity.  Meanwhile, Debbie set off with three dogs secured to her by means of various ropes and karabiners, in the direction of Blackmoorfoot reservoir.

Because he’d had an early start, by the time Debbie had returned, Owen had knocked off for the day and I was making the sort of pasta meal that can be added to or extended as needed. After we’d eaten, and the dogs had been fed, we all gathered round the stove as in olden days, talking and quaffing wine and beer. And gin and tonic, in the case of Granny, when she turned up to reclaim Ellie and Zak.  Owen decided he was going to turn in, and took himself off to beddies. 

I had decided to stay up and wait for Matilda to come back, mostly because I wanted to know she was OK, but also partially because, with her safely indoors, I could close the door between my bedroom and the lobby where the cat flap is – otherwise I would have had to leave the door open all night, which would have lowered the temperature in my bedroom by several degrees. Never a good thing.  Debbie seemed unusually perky, to say that she had yomped for 12 miles o’er hill and dale in the course of exercising the mutts. So we sat up, and continued drinking, red wine in my case, and Henry Weston’s cider in Debbie’s.

Debbie noticed (for the first time) the copy of Gwynne’s Latin by N. M. Gwynne, which I’d ordered from Amazon and which had arrived earlier in the day. I had ordered it because I have decided to brush up my Latin, which I haven’t studied formally since I was at school in 1971, apart from brief forays into the dog-Latin of medieval documents such as Inquisitiones ad quod dampnum. Debbie asked me why Owen had brought a Latin textbook with him, and we had a good laugh about that, me first and then Debbie joining in when I explained.  She started flipping through it and we got into a sort of, well, not exactly an argument, but the sort of discussion you have after several glasses of wine and three bottles of cider, tending to be long winded and circular, about the parts of speech.  Somehow, this developed, as it often does with Debbie when drink has been taken, into an exposition of whether Sister Wendy was the one with the teeth and the Singing Nun was the one with the guitar, or vice versa, and which one of them lived in a caravan.

I found myself wondering whether the fact that two of us were sitting up at 2.15AM waiting for an errant cat, discussing the parts of speech in Latin grammar and the Singing Nun/Sister Wendy, delete as applicable, made us unique as a household in the UK, or possibly the word, that night. I suspected it did. Eventually, Debbie tired of nun-classifying and decided she, too, would head bedwards and leave me to it. I had hunkered down for a long night of it, when she reappeared in the doorway.

“Matilda is outside in the front garden. I’ve just seen her from the bedroom window.”

So I unlocked the inside door, took off the chain, unlocked the porch door, and trundled off down my wheelchair ramp. Matilda was indeed chuffing around in the driveway, and showed no signs of being affected by her brief 100 metres relay with Ellie earlier on in the day. In fact, she was revelling in her new-found freedom, and showing absolutely no signs of coming in any time soon. Her eyes, in the torchlight, were large and glittering, and she was obviously in full-on nocturnal hunting mode, seeking out any hapless rodent that so much as rustled in the leaves.  All very well, but if I left her to it, that meant sleeping in an arctic bedroom, see above. Or shutting her out all night, which was a non-starter.

Reasoning that she hadn’t eaten (apart perhaps from rodent-based snacks) for twelve hours, I went back inside and fetched a sachet of Felix. I opened it at the end of the ramp and sat there in my wheelchair, wafting it about to spread the scent. Fortunately, at that hour of the morning, there were no neighbours or passers-by to see me. The smell of chicken Felix senior had the required effect, and I was able to lead Matilda up the ramp and in to the house, like the pied piper of Hamelin.  Leaving her purring contentedly, with her face stuck in a dish of cat food, I finally went to bed.  Four and a half hours later, I was back at the stove making the first pot of tea of the day.

So when I say it’s been a busy week, it really has. Not that the outside world has been entirely absent, although it has taken a back seat now and then.  Ebola continues to be the bogeyman (or bogeybug) of the moment. It’s got to the stage now where people are making the usual very bad jokes about it (including me) in the same way as they do with other disasters. It’s a very human defence mechanism after all, to joke about that which we find most terrifying, which is why you’ll always find there is a very thin line between undertakers and comedians.  I was particularly struck by a report which I overheard almost by accident, not about the disease as such, but about the preparations for the vaccines.  They didn’t develop anti-Ebola drugs more quickly because “there was no market for it” there in one sentence, in one phrase, is everything that’s wrong with the whole Ebola crisis. Don’t even get me started, or I’ll be outside shouting random incoherence at passing traffic.

Godfrey Bloom, meanwhile, has quit UKIP because it has become “too politically correct”, which is a bit like Sveyn Forkbeard leaving the Vikings because there are insufficient opportunities for rape and pillage.  Presumably old Bloomers misses the old days, when you could call a spade a spade.  Last week I wrote about UKIP supporters letting their naturally exuberant racism bubble to the surface on every occasion, whereas the Tories were careful only to express what they really thought when the microphones were off, but this week, we were treated to the relatively rare spectacle of one of the Nasty Party, Lord Fraud, sorry, Freud, being recorded (without his knowledge) agreeing with some appalling old dug-out at a conference, that the disabled weren’t worth the minimum wage and should work for £2.00 per hour.

Leaving aside for the moment the collective labelling of disabled people as “the disabled” (disabled people are “disabled” for a wide variety of reasons and conditions, in the same way as MPs are corrupt venal sleazebags for a wide variety of reasons, and have taken many different paths into greed and corruption) what irked me so much about this was that it is yet another attack on the concept of the minimum wage, this time by the back door. If “the disabled” aren’t worthy of it, one is left wondering what other groups will be identified and picked off, one by one.

I am not saying there isn’t a debate to be had about getting mobility- and ability-impaired people back into work, and that people who make an equal contribution being expected to be paid equally. However, the idea of “an equal contribution”, especially in jobs where it’s not physically possible to measure, say, a day’s output, in our essentially service economy, is one that is worthy of far more exploration than is available to us today, in the scope of a 4000-word blog posting, and should be determined by older and wiser heads than mine, including some older and wiser heads that are attached to mobility- and ability-impaired bodies.

My starting point would be, however, that everyone gets the minimum wage, and that those who can, by virtue of their excellent physique, in manual work, say, produce more, get paid correspondingly more on top. Levelling up for once, instead of the usual Blight Brigade “race to the bottom”. It has been said, time and time again, by much better economists than me, ever since “austerity” began, that if the minimum wage were to be increased, or people now on minimum wage jobs were paid more, there would be more disposable income in the economy, and perhaps the so-called “recovery”, which at the moment is a mythical and unsustainable Chimera, based on a mini property boom that can’t last, and can’t be allowed to last, much longer than May 2015, would become more solid and more beneficial to us all.

The other thing which irritated me about Lord Freud was the hypocrisy of someone who is supposedly in charge of the well-being of “the disabled” saying in private something which he would never have had the balls to say in public.  Yes, he is entitled to his private life, but when you become a minister, a politician, a member of the government, you are expected to be, and should damn well be, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. Not saying one thing in public and another to your mates at the bar. Having said all that, I don’t know why I was surprised, after all, Lord Fraud is the person who said not so long ago, that people only use food banks because they’re there, a bit like Mount Everest. By extension, I have no doubt he thinks that people only become homeless because of the free soup and the bracing air underneath the railway arches.

People (I am using the term loosely here, to include bloggers sympathetic to the Junta) were quick to point out that in 2003, Patricia Hewitt had consulted with the leading mental health charities and the DTi at the time for a proposal to pay “the disabled” £20.00 a week for some sort of “supported” work as a bridge back to full-time employment. I actually chased known the PDF of this document via a helpful link provided by one of these blogs, to a copy in the National Archives, and yes, it is true. There are, however, some possibly crucial differences. Hewitt’s proposal would have allowed the people who benefited from it to earn this money over and above their disability benefit, and there would have been no sanctions if they had chosen not to participate.  We don’t know anything about the detail of Lord Fraud’s ideas, because the clandestine recording ends with him promising to go away and think about it (presumably when he was sober) but I ask you, dear reader, against this Junta’s background record to date, of sanctions, unpaid work experience, and bipping people off benefit wherever possible, whether it is likely that, had they emerged as concrete proposals in the 2015 Tory manifesto, they would have been anything like as generous in spirit as those in Hewitt’s consultation document. Myself, I doubt it. 

To take our minds off asking awkward questions about the ongoing and continuing costs of our Middle East misadventures, including the fact that we’re now deploying drones as well as fast jets, so I wouldn’t hold any wedding parties in Baghdad if I were you, we have been reminded once again this week that apparently there is still some sort of terror threat at home.  Or at least, at Tony Blair’s home. As the threat level is still at “Godzilla Apocalypse” and the legal proceedings are the subject of one of these secret trials, we have absolutely no idea of the more precise details of the current prosecution, which suits the Blight Brigade just fine. However, it turns out that one of the accused had a folder on his computer entitled “bomb making”, which must make him the world’s most obvious terrorist. Perhaps he skipped class to go boogie boarding the day they did “secrecy”.

I don't normally comment on ongoing legal proceedings for fear of prejudicing a fair trial but it did strike me that you would have to be one spectacularly stupid terrorist to have a folder called "bomb making" on your computer. It's a bit like a burglar making sure he wears a mask and a stripy jersey and carries a sack with "swag" written on it. Anyway, as my own small protest against the attack on British justice and values by this (and previous) governments, I have created a folder called “Bomb Making” on my desktop, and downloaded into it a PDF of the recipe for Bombe Surprise, if MI5 (or, indeed, MFI) would like to come and look.

It’s definitely been a week for doing the garden, then, if only to get away from all this lunacy in the world at large. There’s still a lot to do in the way of clearance, and one job which I will do when the insanity of life in general all gets too much is to take the soil out of the pots that had dead herbs in them, and sort out all the pots into sizes, ready for next year.  But I’ve run out of time to do it today, as today is the Feast of St Frideswide, and I am sitting here writing about her, instead.

St Frideswide was an Anglo-Saxon saint, whose name means “bond of peace”, and is also known by other slight variants of the name, but for the sake of clarity I’ll just stick with “Frideswide” if that’s all the same to you.  She was supposedly the daughter of a king, who is known as Didan, in some accounts.  Historically, if he existed, he is likely to have been a vassal of the king of Mercia. In some accounts, he is said to have originally founded the monastery of which Frideswide was in charge, and where she administered charity to the poor, the sick and the needy.

At this point in the story, the focus switches to Frideswide’s would-be suitor, described as Algar, the King of Leicester, who allegedly sent envoys to bring back Frideswide for his bride. When she refused to renounce her vows, and they tried to carry her off, they were all struck blind.

They repented, and their sight was restored, but they returned to King Algar, who then set out himself, to seize Friedeswide by force. An angel warned her to flee, so she gathered up some food, her missal, and a few belongings, and wrapped in a warm cloak, she slipped out with her companions in the darkness of night through a small gate in the castle wall, which she did, following the Thames upstream. Hiding the boat among the reeds of the riverbank, they concealed themselves in a byre among the beasts stabled there, and waited until dawn. This is why she is often depicted in representations with an Ox.

When king Algar arrived at the gates of Oxford, he was also blinded, by a lightning bolt, but, unlike his followers, he refused to repent and therefore remained blind. Frideswide, meanwhile, continued to perform miracles, healing the sick, enabling the blind to see, and returned to Oxford three years later.

St Frideswide continued to live  in the monastery until her death on October 19th, 727AD.  As well as Oxford itself, there are other places in the wider Oxfordshire countryside which are said to have an association with the Saint. One of the two main accounts of her life says that she went into hiding at Bampton, and the other that she concealed herself at Binsey.  She may have actually hid in both places, moving around, but there is still a healing well in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Binsey, where people leave flowers. It is also a site where pilgrims with eye ailments came to bathe their eyes, hoping for a cure, and women prayed to conceive

The original monastery in question is thought to have been where Christ Church now stands, and in the 1980's archaeologists found a 7th century graveyard there. By 1180, the prior of the then Augustinian monastery dug up Frideswide’s bones and had them ceremonially interred in an ornate reliquary, displayed in a shrine to which pilgrims flocked, hoping for miracles, some of which allegedly happened.

This was replaced in 1289 by a later shrine, which was broken up during the Reformation in the 1530's, but many pieces from it have been recovered, and it has been reconstructed in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. It stands in the Latin Chapel, in front of Burne-Jones stained glass window telling the story of her life, dating from the 1850's.  The saint’s bones were, however, dug up in the reign of Mary Tudor, and kept in two silk bags.  In the religious turmoil of the times, a few years later, St. Frideswide's relics were deliberately mixed up with the bones of another woman who had recently been buried  in the Cathedral, and they were re-buried together in "the upper part of the church towards the east". This is the present site of the shrine, but also, in the Lady Chapel, there is also a dark paving stone in the floor carved simply with the name Frideswide, which is where that the anniversary of her death is commemorated on October 19th each year. She is now the patron saint of Oxford.

Entertaining as it is, as a tale or fable, the life of St Frideswide is a bit short on spiritual meaning.  I’m more affected by it at the point where it touches history, and things such as the healing well, which is perhaps evidence of some sort of what you might call “holy attachment” to the site, even if nothing can be historically proven.  I lived in the Oxfordshire countryside for three years, and I have followed the Thames up and down stream, rambled over its water-meadows, in the days when I could still walk, in a landscape where I often felt that a former era was somewhere close at hand, just around a corner, down a path not taken. “You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid”. It’s part of that separate tradition, that alternative thread in the tapestry of English history: folk traditions, unwritten tales, oral history, and tales passed on at the fireside, on nights such as this, when the night outside is dark and rainy, and there is warm food and ale to be had.

Spirituality hasn’t been high on my agenda this week anyway. The nearest I have got is to attempt to reconcile the philosophical problem of The Ship of Theseus with the uncertainty principle that says you can’t know exactly where a particle is until you observe it, at which point you become part of the process, and affect it.  The Ship of Theseus was the ancient version of Trigger’s yardbrush from Only Fools and Horses (17 new heads and 14 new handles) and asks if a ship which has had every plank replaced is still the same ship. It’s also another version of Heraclitus’s maxim that you can never jump in the same river twice.  Be it Frideswide's river Thames or otherwise. What interested me was that some philosophers have sought to solve the conundrum by referring to the fourth dimension, time. So that well-known and authoritative source, Wikipedia (!) says:

Ted Sider and others have proposed that considering objects to extend across time as four-dimensional causal series of three-dimensional 'time slices' could solve the Ship of Theseus problem because, in taking such an approach, each time-slice and all four dimensional objects remain numerically identical to themselves while allowing individual time-slices to differ from each other. The aforementioned river, therefore, comprises different three-dimensional time-slices of itself while remaining numerically identical to itself across time; one can never step into the same river time-slice twice, but one can step into the same (four-dimensional) river twice.

I’m struggling here, because I have never had any formal philosophical training (as you can tell) but it seemed to me that this was pretty similar in some way that intuitively struck me but which I can’t readily explain, between the flow of the river, the idea, in the uncertainty principle, of movement, and the point where you step into it, the idea, in the uncertainty principle, of measurement.  So you can either have the river flowing on, or you can have the river at the point you step into it. But you can’t have both. 

Does this have a religious interpretation? Well, in a broad sense, I suppose any paradox which forces you to question the nature of what we blithely refer to each day as “reality” and which is nothing of the sort, is, in that broad sense, religious.  This is why the Zen masters use “Koans” or riddles such as “does a dog have Buddha nature?”, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “What was the face you had, before the world was made?” to challenge their pupils and get them to the point where they actually give up trying to answer the question. This, paradoxically, is the point where the pupil is actually starting to learn, because it is only by stilling the mind that the true nature of existence can be experienced. 

And, as I keep coming back to this point, I am forced to admit that if reality (the everyday reality of tables and chairs and gravity and stuff) is in fact all purely electrical energy, then what is the “real” reality behind it.  We’re back again to John Gribbin’s idea, in Schr√∂dinger’s Kittens, of the only answer being a “something” that encompasses everything that is, was, and shall be, for ever and ever, amen. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. God being outside of time.

Although I find the idea of eternity utterly terrifying, and almost impossible to grasp, and although I am terrible at actually explaining these concepts, I do, nevertheless, take some comfort from them, in a world which seems increasingly mad, random and cruel, and I offer it to you in the same spirit. I think it’s possibly as near as we shall ever come, at least in this state of existence, of understanding the nature of God.

All of which is a long way away from St Frideswide. And a long way from the Holme Valley where, as I was writing this, Debbie, Zak and Misty arrived back, soaking wet and wind-blown, from a 12-miler round Blackmoorfoot, where it was apparently blowing a hooley.  Stout October winds. So, two of them need drying off and three of them need feeding.  After enlightenment, the laundry. After an insight I can’t really explain (nothing new there) it’s time to go and chop some onions.  Come, you stout October winds, come with all your power.


No comments:

Post a Comment