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

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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Epiblog for the Feast of St Wilfrid

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  The weather this week has been better, and worse.  By that, I mean that, rather than dull dark dingy days, we’ve had either bright, crisp sunshine or pouring rain. Or sometimes, both at once.  This has confused Matilda more than anyone else, and several times she has suddenly had to scuttle back to the conservatory door and stand there mewing to be let back in and dried off with kitchen roll. Not that she’s spoilt or anything.

The weather is all the same, as far as the dogs are concerned.  Now that Ellie has recovered a bit from her most recent operation, she’s once more been included in the daily walkies schedule, and the other day she did a personal best of 12.7 miles, round Blackmoorfoot reservoir, in the company of Zak, Misty and Deb.  It must have been a bit of a shock to the system, because when she came back, she jumped up on the settee, curled round, and fell fast asleep before we could even get her harness off.  She only woke up when it was time to go home. 

Thankfully, Deb’s mushroom gathering mania seems to have abated in recent days, probably because it’s too dark to see them, so the danger of me being inadvertently poisoned has receded, slightly at any rate. I think her backup plan is to drive me mad by channel-hopping.  On Friday night we were watching “Mastermind”, one of the few programmes we can actually agree to sit and endure at the same time, when she referred to John Humphrys as “Barry”.  That set me thinking; “Mastermind” would, indeed, be much improved if Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna Everidge, was in charge. I am sure it would have a much wider audience, and the winner could have their Caithness glass bowl filled with gladioli.  In flicking through the channels, later that same night, she lit upon the Horror Channel, which was showing old Dr Who episodes and informed me, in the course of a discussion about Dr Who’s various enemies, that one of them was Stavros. Well, I know Easyjet is indeed inherently evil, but then I realised that was Stelios, not Stavros. Still, I like the idea of a Greek Dr Who arch-villain. Obviously no evil would be done between about 11am and 3.30pm. Perhaps the Daleks could be adapted to glide round at parties, with little trays of olives and meze attached to that thing that looks like a sink plunger.

Anyway, there have been few such nuggets of humour, in a week which has once more been full of bad news from the outside world.  As I write, a terrifying plague is spreading contagion across the entire country, a horrendous infection in danger of taking hold and spreading fear and devastation throughout the land. But that’s enough about UKIP, for the moment, what about Ebola?  There’s no doubt that it is a nasty, horrible disease, and not to be taken lightly.  It was a nasty, horrible disease when it was killing people in Africa, as it has been for years, along with West Nile Fever, Dengue, Malaria, and all the other things we’ve been generally happy in the West to turn a blind eye to, on the grounds that it was only killing black people, and some sections of the press here probably thought, on the quiet, that this was no bad thing, mentioning no names, Dailymailcoughcough.

It constantly amazes me how the west ignores things like kids dying in Africa for want of fresh water, Ebola, Yellow Fever, Malaria, Dengue, you name it. Until someone white catches it, whatever it is, then it's "chicken licken! the sky is falling!" And of course, for those who don’t like black people generally, it gives some sort of presumed grounding to their irrational prejudices to say that black people should be stopped from coming to the UK on the grounds that they might have, and therefore spread, the disease.  So it’s a win/win situation for the hysterical tabloids, a heady cocktail of fear and prejudice, which sells lots of papers, so they will no doubt be ramping it up for all it’s worth in days to come.

So, we have got Ebola. Well, not so much got it, as it’s another thing in the panoply of fear and paranoia that’s going to be used to oppress us and, no doubt at some point, to be used to pass yet more anti-libertarian legislation through parliament, on the pretext of making us all safer by strengthening the prison bars around us all, bit by bit, day by day. We shouldn’t really be surprised, in our pursuit of ever more money and the shiny electronic toys that enable us to tweet a complaint that the latte at Starbucks on the way to the office this morning was cold in the same 4 seconds of time that it takes a baby in  Sub-Saharan Africa to die of bad water and poor sanitation, that people in what we rather patronisingly call the Third World decide that they would rather like some of what we’ve got, if that’s all the same to you, and they up sticks and leave their failed states and their breeze-block hovels in the middle of the desert, the ones that we have bombed the crap out of (using missiles that cost us from £105,000 to £800,000 a pop) and they make their way overland and get to the coast of Africa and then risk their lives on flimsy rafts to try and land somewhere in the EU via Lampedusa, en route eventually to Calais and the (comparative) Shangri-La that is Droitwich.

As with Mrs Thatcher’s class war against the workers and the poor, or the endless tit-for-tat cycles of violence between Israel and Palestine, you can see how it happens, but this doesn’t mean that you agree with it or endorse it. As with Jihadism, it’s a problem of our own making. Our unwillingness to share the benefits of previous exploitation, our inability to manage a post-colonial legacy, our partial, and politically-motivated allocation of government aid that goes towards paying for a new missile system or gold-plated taps in the corrupt emperor’s palace, rather than for grain and fresh water for those starving or dying on the ground. All these are our doing, if by “our” I mean the Western world as a whole.

In its natural habitats, the Ebola virus is apparently harboured by colonies of wild old bats, which I must admit is rather worrying, as I do know several wild old bats in this country, who are indeed quite capable of unpredictable and dangerous behaviour. Still, according to the BBC News this week, one of the symptoms of Ebola is death, which should make it fairly easy to spot.

Death, or at least an inherent wish for it, in political terms, is also a symptom of both the Tories and the Labour Party, or so it would seem from this week’s by-election results.

Since 2010, the Tory/Lib Dem Junta has been pumping out propaganda about immigration. Immigrants are the cause of all our woes, apparently, and are coming here in droves to steal our jobs. Or our benefits. Or sometimes, when they think we’re really stupid, we’re told by the government they are coming here to steal both. Basically, what the Tories would like to say is “we’ll send all the brown people home”, because they know this would resonate profoundly as a vote-winner amongst the racist grannies, white van men, and Sun readers who make up the majority of the Bigot Brigade.  However, the Tories can’t say that, because, apart from anything else, it’s against the law to discriminate between people over the colour of their skin. If the Tories do say it, they say it to each other in private, when they are damn sure the mic is turned off, or they “say” it in coded messages to the electorate, such as making sure Theresa May deports a brown person a week. If it’s a terminally ill brown person, being returned “home” to certain death, so much the better.

UKIP have absolutely no compunction about their desire to send all the brown people home, being, as they are, a haven for those lost souls who have been looking for a political home ever since the BNP and the EDL imploded. Like the Tories, they are legally prevented from saying so in so many words, but unlike the Tories, they are often too stupid to check if they are being recorded, or their natural racism bubbles to the surface and they make that comment about Bongo-Bongo Land anyway. Or about gay people causing localised flooding, or sluts who don’t clean behind the fridge, or that it would be better for disabled people to have been aborted, or all of the above. Then there is a brief hoo-hah for as long as it takes for Nigel Farage to dissociate himself with the comments, the perpetrator is defenestrated, and another closet racist and fruitcake seamlessly takes their place in the UKIP hierarchy, to repeat the process.

I said, a long while ago, that immigration would be a key battleground in the forthcoming general election, and, sadly, I take absolutely no pleasure in noting that my prediction is coming true. The key point about immigration, as it stands at the moment, is that it is inherently tied up with Europe, and the idea of free movement within EU states.  This is why it’s absolutely impossible to have a sensible debate about immigration right now. If the entire population of Gdansk decided to up sticks and move to Merseyside, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.  Why they would consider it, of course, is another matter. One city is a grimy, crumbling, decayed shell of its former industrial and shipbuilding past; and then there’s Gdansk. (Only joking, my Scouser chums, calm down, calm down!)

The Tories, to their credit (now there’s a sentence you won’t see me type very often, so make the most of it) have offered an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament, should we be foolish enough to re-elect them.  It is, in fact, the only thing that might be said in their favour – but then, of course, if they are re-elected, you get all the rest of the austerity and class war claptrap that comes with it.  Voting Tory in 2015 just to get an EU referendum is like agreeing to let your “funny” uncle take you for a treat to the zoo, even though you know there’s a strong chance he’ll molest and murder you in a deserted country lane during the journey home. 

Labour, of course, have chosen to ignore the whole issue, thus sending a strong signal to their core white working class vote, who, rightly or wrongly, are concerned with such issues, that Labour doesn’t give a stuff about you, so you might as well vote UKIP. This is what happened in Heywood and Middleton. The Liberal Democrats are irrelevant on this, as indeed they are on so many other matters. Though Vince Cable did have a remarkable recovery from severe amnesia this week, when the shock of am imminent election annihilation suddenly woke him up to the fact that he disagreed with everything he’s been helping the Tory Junta inflict on us for the past four years. I do hope Nick Clegg’s proposed mental health reforms are adopted at least in Mr Cable’s case, to allow him to live out his twilight years in peace, somewhere far away from the rest of us.

The reason why people are voting UKIP rather than Tory in these by-elections, and will do so in large numbers (though not so large) at the general election, is because they perceive that UKIP will be tougher and crack down more on the scroungers, scapegoats, asylum seekers, immigrants, benefit claimants, you name it, than the Tories will.  All of these categories are interchangeable in the mind of the UKIP voter, such as it is. They live in a world where the Muslim who runs the local takeaway signals to Al Qaida submarines at night by closing and unclosing his curtains, where every burkha hides a suicide vest, and where there are Ebola-ridden asylum seekers under all the beds of Droitwich Spa. 

The Tories created these bogey men, and now their evil propaganda has come back to bite them on the bum: despite their protestations (true) that they are actually the only party offering to do something about sorting out Europe after the next election, people are not listening, and are voting UKIP because they think UKIP will somehow be tougher.  The fact that, in order to enact the withdrawal from the EU which is the main, indeed, some would say the only, UKIP policy, UKIP would have to elect enough MPs to form a parliamentary majority or at least a substantial enough wedge in a hung parliament to go into coalition, is lost on people who vote for them.  In fact, as was painfully shown in a radio phone-in on LBC this week, some people who voted UKIP have got absolutely no idea what the party’s policies on, say, farming, or defence are.  Anyone who says they voted UKIP because of their farming policy reminds me of those sleazy old blokes who used to claim they read Playboy in the 1970s because of its well-informed articles on motoring. Yeah, right.

So why do people think UKIP will be tougher? One reason is of course that they haven’t really got a clue, and in fact they are using their vote for UKIP as a kick-ass “none of the above” comment on the two main parties and the failure of the minor parties such as the Greens and the Liberal Democrats to come up with anything better.  As I said, they live in a fantasy world created by the Tory Junta and the media, where Muslim terrorist asylum seeking immigrants (probably all infected with Ebola) are arriving by the boatload at Dover Docks and immediately being given the keys to a free council house, a Ferrari, and a wide-screen TV.  People are resentful about this, even though it’s a complete fairy tale, and resentful about local services being (as they see it) put under strain. (Although much of that strain is in fact the result of self-inflicted “austerity” cuts (those £800K missiles have to be paid for somehow) by the Treasury in the rate support grant to local councils, who then, in turn, have to cut front line services because, unlike Liverpool under Derek Hatton, they don’t have the balls to stand up to the Tories and refuse to set a budget). The voters look at Westminster MPs in their faraway little bubble with their safety-cushion of expenses and several other jobs and their two or three houses, and they think UKIP will somehow sort it all out.

And all this is directly down to failures by the Tories and by Labour.  Labour by washing their hands of it, with the useless, feeble, Ed Miliband issuing platitudes about how they must learn the lesson of Heywood. The lesson of Heywood has been brewing for years, and it’s a bit bloody late, six months before an election, for it finally to have penetrated Miliband’s skull, if indeed it even has. The Tories are to blame for creating the evil genie in the first place, and then failing to be seen to be able to control it.  Even their referendum promise is viewed with suspicion, because of course, like all pre-election promises, there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, and in any case, I think the options on any referendum should be in/out, or – my own preferred option - “shake it all about”, whereby we remain a nominal member of the EU but the focus from our point of view is on the advantages for British citizens who want to trade and live abroad, and we disassociate ourselves from the EU political process of union and integration. After all, other EU members cherry-pick the bits of EU membership that suit them best – are you listening, mes amis Francaises? – so why shouldn’t we?)

It has often been said of UKIP (in a derogatory way) that they want to get back to the 1950s. I doubt that’s true, in practice, though if they do, it’s the 1950s where you could put up a notice in the window of a B&B saying “No Blacks, No Irish” and no-one batted an eyelid. These days, I suppose, UKIP would add “No Gays”.  Well, for the record, I’d quite like to get back to the 1950s – not in those ways, which I utterly repudiate, but back to the compassionate society where people used to look out for their neighbours and their community, and where rights were balanced with respect.  We obviously haven’t heard the last of UKIP, since there is yet another by-election with yet another Tory to UKIP defector standing in Rochester next Thursday. And in the wake of UKIP comes all the other, similar groups who are several stops beyond Barking and well off the bus route, such as Britain First.

Britain First has been going on about asylum seekers being on benefits this week.  Just for the record, Asylum seekers don't receive benefits. If they're not in detention they get £36.52 a week to live on, often in the form of vouchers that can only be used at certain outlets. They are actively prevented from seeking work while their cases are being heard, which means that they are unable to support themselves or contribute to the country by paying taxes and NI, because the government prevents them from doing so. If their appeal is disallowed, they are likely to be deported back to somewhere where their lives are in danger. Mind you, I shouldn’t expect too much accuracy from a group whose supporters think that Lord Nelson was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had (!) or who illustrated their article about an anti-immigration demo they had held in Dover with a picture of the Seven Sisters, a series of prominent white cliffs, true, but located near Eastbourne. Should’ve gone to Specsavers.

So, it’s all very depressing, and there’s only so much that ridicule can do to alleviate the overarching and growing sense of despair. I wrote last week about the apparent meaninglessness of life, the random nature of evil, and I can, truthfully, say that nothing which has happened this week has done anything in the slightest to re-affirm my faith or bring back any sense of meaning.  Today, Sunday, is the feast of St Wilfrid, one of the great saints of the North-East, so I turned to his life hoping to gain some lessons I could carry forward into the gathering darkness.

Wilfrid lived from about 633AD to 709 or 710AD, and, unlike many of the more obscure saints we’ve had in recent weeks, had a long and (for the period) well-documented life.  He was yet another of the Saxon saints who were intertwined with the royal house of Northumbria at the time when that area was one of the separate kingdoms of Saxon England.

Born into Northumbrian nobility, he studied initially for a religious vocation at Lindisfarne, but also travelled to Canterbury, on to Gaul, and even as far as Rome.  On his return to Northumbria in 660AD or thereabouts, he became the abbot of the newly founded monastery at Ripon, North Yorkshire. In 664AD he made his famous speech at the Synod of Whitby, where he argued for the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter, rather than the Celtic church’s method. Oh for the days when that was all we had to worry about.

Wilfrid’s success at the Synod of Whitby led to his being appointed Bishop of Northumbria. Rather sniffily, Wilfrid chose to be consecrated in Gaul, because he didn’t rate the currently available English bishops to be validly consecrated enough to consecrate others in turn.  Wilfrid had been appointed by Alhfrith, the son of the reigning Northumbrian king, Oswiu, and while Wilfrid was off in search of the full-fat, high-tar original recipe consecration experience in Gaul, Alhfrith, unwisely as it turned out, led an insurrection against Oswiu and was defeated. Oswiu then appointed his own bishop of Northumbria,  Ceadda, negating Wilfrid’s appointment. This meant that, when Wilfrid returned to England, he was forced to resume his post at Ripon, while Ceadda was bishop in his stead.

Theodore of Tarsus became archbishop of Canterbury in 668AD and resolved the anomaly by deposing Ceadda, which meant that for the next nine years, Wilfrid improved the liturgy, built churches and founded monasteries.

Theodore, however, had his own ideas about how things should be done, and wanted to break up some of the larger dioceses. When Wilfrid quarrelled once more with the king of Northumbria (by now it was Ecgfrith) Theodore seized his chance, and broke up the diocese anyway.  Wilfrid found himself on the road again, this time travelling to Rome to appeal directly to the Pope.  The Pope ruled in Wilfrid’s favour, but Ecgfrith ignored this. When Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, Ecgfrith imprisoned him and then exiled him.

Exile involved spending time in Selsey, West Sussex.  I once spent nine years in exile in West Sussex, and I have to say that they were some of the most enjoyable years of my life so far.  Wilfrid had a slightly harder time of it than I had, however, but he did manage to convert the pagan kingdom of West Sussex to Christianity, and inspired Kipling, many years later, to write the famous poem about Eddi, priest of Wilfrid, giving his sermon to the animals in his church at Manhood End. (Manhood End, despite its rather risqué name, is just a peninsula sticking out into the English channel, near Selsey Bill).

Life was, however, to become even more complicated for Wilfrid. Theodore made up his quarrel with Wilfrid, and by now there was a new king of Northumbria, Aldfrith. Aldfrith initially allowed Wilfrid to return, but in 691AD, expelled him again.  This time, Wilfrid travelled to Mercia, where he acted as a bishop, but in 700AD he appealed to the Papacy yet again, and the Pope ordered that a Council be held at Austerfield, in 702AD, to decide the issue. This council attempted to confiscate all of Wilfrid’s possessions, and so, yet again, he travelled to Rome to appeal in person to the Pope. Meanwhile, his Northumbrian opponents excommunicated him (no half measures there) but the Pope once again upheld Wilfrid’s side of the dispute, and he was re-installed at Ripon and at Hexham. (It always amuses me when I read of clergy being “installed”. I have visions of a little paperclip popping up and saying “you appear to be attempting to install a Bishop. Do you want some help with this feature?”)

Somehow, unaccountably, after his death in 709 or 710AD, Wilfrid began to be revered as a saint.  He was buried near the altar of Ripon, although he actually died on one of his travels, at Oundle in Northamptonshire. I have to say he sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant character who was probably capable of starting an argument in an empty room, but I suppose that we shouldn’t judge the people of those distant days, when the method of calculating Easter was a big deal, by the standards of today.  Quite what was saintly about a life that seems to have been equally divided between administrating and arguing is largely lost on me, I’m afraid.  It is probably a legacy of the fact that the main source for Wilfrid’s life, apart from Bede, is the medieval Via Sancti Wilfrithi, by Stephen of Ripon, a typically hagiographic, uncritical account.  Then, as today, the media sets the message and the victors write the history.

Wilfrid’s feast day is 12th October, today, although it has also been celebrated on 24th April.  The confusion arises because the latter date marks when his relics were translated into a new shrine. Miracles supposedly happened almost as soon as Wilfrid was dead. The water which had been used to wash his body caused miraculous events at the location where it had been discarded. In 948AD, however, King Eadred destroyed the foundation at Ripon, and Wilfrid’s relics started a series of travels which were to mimic his travels while alive. 

After 948AD, Archbishop Oda of Canterbury took Wilfrid’s relics to Canterbury Cathedral, although there is also a tradition that some of them were preserved at Ripon and that Oswald, Archbishop of York, restored the monastic community there.  At this distance in time, it’s anyone’s guess, to be honest, but there’s no reason why the relics could not have been split up, given the fact that there were about 17 femurs of St James on the go at any one time. 

The Canterbury relics were moved into a shrine of their own, following a fire at Canterbury in 1067, and by this time, with England now under the control of the Normans, there were 48 churches dedicated to him, and 11 different sites that claimed to have some, or all, of his relics.  In Ripon itself, the feast of St Wilfrid continued until as recently as 1908 to be held on the first Sunday after Lammas-tide, a different date yet again, and was marked with fairs, a parade, and horse-racing.

The only thing really that I have taken from the life of St Wilfrid is that it seems that the lust for power was just as strong in those days as this, that Europe and its supposed interference was a significant factor, and that to the ordinary peasant struggling in the mud, it probably didn’t make a lot of difference anyway. Plus ça change

More pertinently for me, though, I can’t find any spiritual solace in it, interesting as it is in terms of the history of those times, and once again, I now find myself questioning the concepts of sainthood, as well as everything else! Well, not so much the concepts, so much as the entry requirements, I suppose.  I still try and pray, for what it’s worth.  It seems to me a bit like when the life in a plant or a tree shrinks down into the ground, in winter, but you hope, one hopes, I hope, that it will burgeon again in spring. 

So, in my little shrunken life, I look forward to another unrelenting week, keep that wheel a-turning, and do a little more each day, as it says in Cosher Bailey, and it’ll all come right.  Which is all fine and dandy, apart from those times when I’m actually just clinging on by my fingertips, when I’m down to my last bullet and the cavalry haven’t yet come galloping over the hill.  I’m not sure what it is that keeps me going at those times: a combination of bloody-mindedness and not wanting to let down those who rely on me and my efforts, such as they are. Is that caused by God? Is there a spark of the once-divine hidden somewhere deep (must be bloody deep and bloody well-hidden, is all I can say) that drives me to aspire towards it, like the spring sap rising, to get up and try again? 

I’m tired tonight. All I really want to do now is to hibernate. To curl up somewhere and get warm and go back to sleep. I might do some painting later. It might help me feel less fed up, both with myself and with the way the world’s going.  Monday will be here soon enough.

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