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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Epiblog for All Souls' Day

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  So busy, in fact, that I hardly noticed the weather turning weird, although it has done so. Seriously weird. The warmest Hallowe’en on record, ever, apparently. Don’t get me wrong; I hate the cold in winter, especially the vicious combination of cold and damp that makes my bones sing with pain, but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel we should be more than slightly concerned that there now seem to be only two real “seasons” in England, Spring and Autumn, punctuated with short irrational periods of either extreme heat or extreme cold. Call me an old and wizened doomsayer, but it speaks to me of climate change, and the fact that maybe there is something wrong “up there”, short of the clouds actually parting and Jove descending to earth, hurling thunderbolts hither and yon.

The problem is, though, that it’s actually rather pleasant, especially if, like me, you do hate the cold and the damp and the fog and the rain and the ice. I might make an exception for snow, when it’s freshly fallen and I am safe and warm indoors, but even then, I can take or leave it. In fact, when it comes to winter as a whole, I can definitely leave it, and fully intend to. In the unlikely event of my either a) winning the lottery or b) people buying so many of my books that I become at least as rich as Robert Graves, I will buy a house in Majorca and live there from the end of October to the beginning of March, each year. But of course, it’s not just me. The issue with global warming is that it’s, er, sort of global, and the fact that I can have the conservatory door open on the afternoon of a pleasantly warm Hallowe’en probably means that somewhere, thousands of people are dying in floods, cyclones and tidal waves in Bangladesh or something.

So, it’s not all good news. Matilda, of course, is blissfully unaware of climate change, except that it means she’s been able to spend a lot more time outdoors than she normally would at this time of year. Which again, is probably a good thing, given that I daresay soon enough we’ll all be shut in the house watching the freezing cold rain slanting across the windows for days on end.  This morning, she even curled up on a pile of fallen leaves outside on the decking, and dozed in the sun, the colours of her torty calico fur merging in perfectly with the browns, blacks and creams of the dead leaves.  Debbie said she must be practising her bushcraft. If so, like Ray Mears, she seems to have eaten a biscuit or two too many.

For much of the week, until Granny’s triumphant return from her tour of Southampton yesterday, we’ve had three dogs in the house, which has been a truly character-building experience, given that it’s now the firework season with a vengeance here in bomb alley.  Two days in a row, Misty and Zak ran off from Debbie when a salvo of unexpected explosions erupted in the sky overhead. Fortunately, the first time she was just up in the woods, and the second time, down on the cricket field, so on both occasions they simply ran back home, and I let them in when their little faces appeared at the door, having been alerted to the problem by a mobile phone call.  The time when Debbie was left alone in the woods, in looking for the dogs, she found, instead, an abandoned camouflage tarpaulin, which she then brought home. Yes, dear, reader, I married a womble. 

Ellie, despite being a feisty little terrier like Freddie was, seems completely unfazed by fireworks.  Whereas Freddie used to regard it as a grave personal affront and a severe incursion into his territory if someone so much as lit a roman candle in the garden over the valley in Berry Brow, and hurled himself against the conservatory door, barking “let me at them!” in a paroxysm of fury, Ellie just sleeps through it all, curled round in her dog-bed. Katie the doggy nanny has also been doing some work on Ellie’s recall off lead this week, so there is a slightly increased possibility of her actually coming back from a walk as well as setting out on one. Ellie, that is, not Katie. Katie’s currently on holiday in Antigua, so there’s obviously more money in dog walking than there is in publishing.

That’s really all the animal news that’s fit to print, and Debbie, when not yomping over hill and dale and getting slightly lost on the moors trying to find her way back from Marsden Mount and blundering around in a pitch-black wood until she found the right path again, has been busy sorting out her teaching stuff, ready for the resumption of hostilities next week. In fact, we had a massive clear-out of stuff generally, including a load of my old filing, which I hadn’t looked at for four years, so for a couple of days I was covered in dust and had dead spiders in my beard (no change there, then) but the end result is that the house is slightly less cluttered and I found some stuff that I thought I had done, but I hadn’t, so my in-tray is slightly more full.  I also didn’t quite finish either of the two new books I was trying to get off to press, but I’ve broken the back of both of them and they’ll be done by Tuesday.

The days are really shortening now, and, unseasonably warm weather notwithstanding, I’ve been getting into that mindset now whereby I bank up the stove of an evening, lock up all the doors, and settle down to count my blessings at least for the four walls that surround me, and the roof over my head. Although this house is often a trouble and a turmoil to me, a source of grey hairs and knits in the brow, it is, nevertheless, better than being homeless.  Something which was proved yet again this week by Crisis, the homeless charity, which, as part of its “No-one Turned Away” campaign,  is calling for politicians to review the help single homeless people in England get under the law so that no-one is forced to sleep rough. To investigate the scale of the problem, Crisis sent undercover researchers to councils across England with more than half receiving little or no help at all. Some of this is doubtless down to bureaucratic bungling, but in most cases I am guessing it’s down to financial pressures imposed on local government by central government’s “austerity” driven cuts, and a lack of affordable housing.

Figures for the first quarter of this year showed that 2,029 people were sleeping rough on the streets of London, an 8% increase over the same period last year (2013). The figures for rough sleeping have risen three years in a row, and almost certainly represent an underestimate anyway, because they will take no account of people who are technically homeless but “sofa surfing” and/or who happened to find a place in a hostel on the particular night of the count.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, said: 

“It is nothing short of a disgrace that, in one of the world’s most prosperous cities, so many Londoners continue to be left out in the cold. Yet more rises in the number of people sleeping rough in the capital only serve to highlight politicians’ failure to ensure the economic recovery is felt among the most vulnerable in society.

“The Mayor of London must make good on his pledge to end rough sleeping in the capital by building more affordable homes and investing in homelessness services. But, to see an end to these ongoing rises in rough sleeping, we also need national government to reverse the cruel cuts to housing benefits that have left far too many unable to afford a roof over their heads, condemned to the horrors of life on the streets.”

Good luck with that, Leslie Morphy. I rather fear that there will need to be one or two heads on spikes, preferably outside the Tower of London, before we have a London Mayor who is dedicated to roofs over heads, rather than hosing the homeless off the streets with water cannon.  The political will is totally lacking. Homeless people don’t register to vote.  As I’ve said many, many times before, if you requisitioned all the MPs' second homes and used them as temporary hostels, and made the MPs themselves sleep in sleeping bags in parliament square until the rough sleepers count was down to zero, the problem of homelessness would be solved in a fortnight. They just need their minds concentrating on the issue, and to not get distracted by the thought of firing very expensive missiles at Arabs, firework night or no firework night. And if that doesn’t work, bugger the power of recall: vive la guillotine!

As you can probably tell, I am in another bilious mood this week, especially where this vile, dysfunctional, compassionless, xenophobic, bigoted, and frankly, stupid, excuse for a society we are busy creating by default, is concerned.  We’re not just abandoning the weak and needy at home, either. This week it was announced that the Royal Navy will no longer contribute to the international effort to carry out patrols in the Mediterranean to rescue sinking (and potentially drowning) boatloads of people trying to get from Africa to Europe.

True, this is set against the background of Italy, the prime mover behind the initiative, winding down the whole operation (it is to be replaced with something much more limited)  but it was the UK Junta’s reported reasoning, from The Independent, that particularly struck me:

But the UK Government has said it will not support future search and rescue operations beyond supplying a technical expert. It says that such operations simply encourage more migrants.

Yes, of course, that must be it: these people are only setting course for Lampedusa in flimsy, leaking rustbuckets in the hope of meeting up with a burly matelot! Hello, sailor!  Nothing to do with the Ebola-ridden hellholes they come from, ravaged by post-colonial tribal wars, starved of food and medical resources, where a child dies every ten seconds for lack of clean water, then.  They just do it for a whiff of the ozone, a life on the ocean wave, in the same way as people use food banks because it’s more convenient than Tescos, and make themselves intentionally homeless for the free soup.

This also seems to be the view of various magistrates’ benches in the North East of England.  I don’t know what you have to do to be a magistrate in the North-East. There must be some special “heartless bastard” finishing school that’s churning them out somewhere. I previously wrote castigating Peterlee magistrates for their lax treatment of a serious case of animal abuse, and now Newton Aycliffe Magistrates have jailed a man who stole three steaks from Sainsburys because he couldn’t afford to eat, as his benefits had been sanctioned (ie stopped on a whim by the DWP as a punitive act).

This is the full report from The Northern Echo:

A man who stole to eat after his benefits were stopped has been jailed. Ian Mulholland admitted stealing three packets of casserole steak from Sainsbury's when he appeared at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates Court . The court heard he stole the meat to eat after changes to his benefits left him hungry. The 43-year-old drug user, who faces amputation of his legs, apparently spent nine weeks without money when attempting to change benefits to reflect his disability. He missed out on payments after failing to attend appointments. Ben Pegman, mitigating, said Mulholland was unable to afford food and, because of his ulcerated legs, was unable to get to the local foodbank. He added that the recent offending was as a result of his situation. “He is free of heroin and in receipt of methadone but this is not offending to top that up but offending to eat.” Mulholland, of Borough Road, Darlington, pleaded guilty to stealing the food, worth £12.60, and was sentenced to six weeks in prison.

Now, I know there are those who will see the words “heroin addict” and think, yes, well, junkie desperate for a fix, despite the fact that his defence lawyer explicitly stated this was not the case.  Actually, despite my natural and abiding cynicism, I am inclined to believe this. Apart from anything else, if you were stealing to get heroin, you would probably take something with a longer shelf life and/or something that was easier to convert into ready money than three manky steaks from Sainsburys. 

What good, though, is going to be served by his prison term? He will join (albeit temporarily) the vast army of people who should not be in prison at all, and when he comes out, his prospects of ever getting a job, which must be slim in Newton Aycliffe, and with his background, will now be zero, with a prison record.  Maybe the person who should have gone to prison was the one who took nine weeks not to sort out Ian Mulholland’s benefits claim, although this is par for the course in a department riven by low morale and failed IT projects that cost much, much more than they ever saved.  Still, at least he’ll get fed in prison, and it keeps Iain Duncan-Smith happy, because it’s one fewer person on the benefits list. And there’s every prospect of it happening again, because Mr Mulholland will have to start his application all over again from scratch when he is released. 

While I was researching this, I also heard, anecdotally, of the case of a disabled man in Salford who uses an electric scooter, who went into hospital and was there a month. If you are in hospital for a certain length of time,  you get your benefits stopped. It can take a considerable amount of time to apply from scratch and have  them reinstated. When he came out he found that the scooter company who supplied his transport had re-possessed his scooter. I haven’t been able to trace an actual news story to back this up, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turned out to be true, the state this country is in.

So, like I said, a busy week. One in which, for once, I can actually point to something physical as evidence of what I have achieved. Even though it is only an empty space where the filing once was, and a lot of aggrieved spiders busily spinning new webs elsewhere.  Somehow, then, it came to Sunday, and the Commemoration of All The Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day. Now widely celebrated by various Christian denominations as a day of reflection and prayer for the dead, the idea is also linked to the pagan festival of Samhain, the Roman one of Lemuria, and several folk-beliefs involving special meals, begging, and visits to cemeteries to the graves of family and ancestors.  Doing this on the day after All Saints’ day, November 1st, is the result of St Odilo of Cluny choosing the date, back in the 11th century, as the day on which all abbeys dependent on the Abbey of Cluny would celebrate and remember their departed brethren, and the practice spread through the monastic world and then generally to Christianity as a whole.  There are various complicated rules about what happens if it falls on a Sunday, however.  The Sunday is used for celebrating All Saints’ day, and the Holy Day of Obligation for All Souls gets transferred to the Monday. So, that’s a good excuse not to hoover up tomorrow, even if it means having kippers for breakfast instead of bacon.

I’ve chosen to go with today, however, because this week, All Souls has personal resonances for me. It would have been my Dad’s 93rd birthday on 28th October.  The Anglicans and the Roman Catholic Church found themselves previously at odds over All Souls’ Day, as with so much else, because the Anglicans disagreed over the practice of praying for people in Purgatory.  At the time of the Reformation, however, All Souls was actually combined with All Saints. These days, it is an optional part of the Anglican Communion and is usually celebrated in a way which avoids mentioning Purgatory specifically, in a sort of “don’t mention the war” scenario.

In terms of the folk-beliefs associated with All Souls’ Day, many of these are associated with Purgatory.  Ringing bells was supposed to comfort the souls in Purgatory, presumably by letting them know that people still cared, and the sharing of “soul cakes” when the poor urchins of the parish came begging at your door also in some way was supposed to mitigate the purgatorial suffering of your dead family members. Of course, the “souling” was sometimes an excuse for “cakes and ale” generally and maybe some people who didn’t actually deserve to get a soul cake on the grounds of poverty got one anyway, but I guess it was better that way around than the reverse.  I am sure there are some people in the present “government” who, if re-elected, would object to people giving out soul-cakes on the grounds that it only encouraged troupes of starving urchins to go from door to door singing

“A soul, a soul a soul cake,
Please good missis a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Or any good thing to make us merry
One for Peter, one for Paul,
One for him who made us all…

The lanes are very dirty
Me shoes are very thin
I’ve got a little pocket
I could put a penny in
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God help you.

So, today, as on many other days, I have been reflecting on the nature of the afterlife, such as it is, and Purgatory, if it exists.  Bearing in mind that, as I said last week, the Pope has already abolished Limbo, which caught a lot of dancers in Jamaica by surprise. Purgatory must be like being forced to listen to a succession of party political broadcasts on a tape loop, until you feel that your soul has had every last drop of resistance wrung from it like a damp dishrag and you cry out for mercy. Mind you, with the election next year, you will be able to experience that without actually being dead. In fact, some days, I think it’s started already. And as for heaven, I have had several goes at describing what it must be like, but I still don’t quite see how I am going to be able to spend all eternity with Auntie Maud without going slowly demented. 

Thinking of Auntie Maud, of course, also brings home to me the fact that now, neither of my own parents has any proper memorial to mark the last resting place of their earthly remains. People who have been reading this blog for a while may remember that I applied to the Ministry of Justice for a licence to exhume the cremated remains of my mother and father, and Auntie Maud and Granny Fenwick, which are all interred under a memorial tree in the grounds of Chanterlands Crematorium in Hull, because, now that none of the family remains there, my sister and I thought it would be a better idea to commemorate them by scattering what remains of them somewhere which had more meaning to them in life. Unfortunately, two of my cousins disagreed, and as the exhumation of Granny and Auntie Maud can only go ahead if all their remaining surviving descendants agrees, that put the kibosh on the idea. I did obtain a licence to exhume Mum and Dad, but then that would leave my Mum and Granny Fenwick, her mother, separated in death.  So they all remain under the tree, unvisited, even on All Souls’ Day, but not forgotten.

Of course, they will all be saying, in fact, if I listen hard to the deep, dark silence outside, right now, I can even almost hear them saying it, that I should spend the money on the living and not the dead, and the remembrance of them that counts is that we remember them and carry them about in our hearts, and that is true remembrance, not the sort to be found in placing a bunch of roses against a plaque strapped to a tree trunk.  And they speak to you, as well, dear reader, through me – as I interpret the world through their eyes, and wonder and think what they would have made of the things that confront me in my daily struggle to keep sane and solvent, some of the reactions you hear from me are what would actually have been their reactions.

So, they live on – absolutely, perhaps, in the multiverse called heaven, outside of the strictures of time, which also solves what we might refer to as the "Aunt Maud eternal monologue problem", and here on earth, for as long as the last person who remembers them continues to re-interpret them for others. The other day, when I nephew-sat young Adam, I showed him all of the family history pictures on the computer and told him about Grandad Walker and his life as a police superintendent in 1910.  If he remembers, who knows, he might one day speak to his children about that link with Edwardian England.  He was very interested in my telling him about Granny Rudd’s adventures in the Blitz, which he has been doing in history at school, so who knows.

Anyway, it’s time once again to turn from the dead back to the living. To the bright hearth and a stove that needs mending, followed soon by a dog and a wife that will, no doubt need feeding, in that order. If only I could get them both to eat dry mixer and chub. 

And next week, when I’m in the thick of it, I will feel the presence of the silent cohorts of ancestors, on my side, and even, who knows, at my side, in the coming battles


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