It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The weather though, has got into my bones, and the cold and damp has been making me ache this week. We’re definitely on the road to Christmas now, plodding down that long dark tunnel that began when the clocks went back and will only end with the winter Solstice and the turn of the year. Hilare Belloc once wrote somewhere to the effect that setting off on a long journey, the first step is easy, it’s when you get to four or five hundred that it begins to hit you what you’ve taken on, and that’s how it feels right now. Like a marathon runner hitting “the wall”.
There have been some flashes of brilliant gold sunshine in all the grim greyness, few and far between. Some days have started grey and rainy then faired up a bit, some have gone in precisely the opposite direction. Matilda has been taking advantage of it when she can, although most of the time all she actually does when she goes out these days is patrol to the end of the decking and then sit there, scanning the garden for marauding neighbourhood moggies, or small rodents rustling in the grass. She’s learnt the hard way not to stray too far into the wilderness, in case it suddenly starts banging down with cold, hard rain, so she keeps within scuttling distance of the door. The seamless transition between being the fearless guardian of all she surveys and being curled up on her jiffy bag on the settee, steaming gently in the heat of the stove, has been narrowed down to just a few seconds, and, as the weather worsens, no doubt she’ll even shave a bit off that. One advantage of Matilda sleeping on her jiffy bag is that if Debbie comes in and wants to get next to the fire, she just slides Matilda along the settee to make room at the corner!
Weather is not something that figures on Misty’s radar much, however. She’s more than happy to go out, up into the hills, whatever the rain-gods are chucking at us, and she seems to like nothing more than to come back splattered with mud, after having rolled in something disgusting en route. Part of it is the collie dog breeding, of course: she’s genetically hard-wired, programmed to be out on the fells all day, working with sheep and covering mile after mile of rough terrain. The remainder of it is, however, pure stupidity and daft-dogness. Still, at least the fireworks have abated slightly, though she’s still having to spend most of her walks either on the lead or on a length of Dyneema hitched to a karabiner which is then clipped through the loop of her harness (the other end being a karabiner clipped to Debbie’s belt) The latter arrangement does at least allow her a bit more freedom to snuffle on a longer line (the dog, that is, not Debbie) though the downside is that if some inconsiderate idiot does let off a firework and she hears it and takes off, unless Debbie grabs the slack in the line quickly, she’s likely to be yanked off her feet. Not one to be employed on clifftop paths.
Anyway, until the police start properly enforcing the law on fireworks and/or their sale and use is prohibited apart from in organised displays, we’re stuck with it, and have to do the best we can. I was going to go on and say that the chances of that happening are about as high as those of Kirklees College paying Debbie for the work she has done between September and now, but finally this week, that does, in fact, actually seem to have happened. There is corn in Egypt yet. So I may have to choose my comparisons more wisely in future, if I want to use an analogy for something which is as likely/unlikely to take place as the Devil going past the window on a skateboard.
As for me, I’ve been plodding along, metaphorically putting one foot in front of the other, while feeling tired, cold, ill and depressed. For light relief, I have begun following Masterchef on the BBC. I say “following”, but in truth it’s more often a case of having it wittering on in the background while I am working. That’s probably a safe dosage, you wouldn’t want to get any more deeply involved, because the BBC broadcasts it continuously on a loop, and eventually I would start having disturbing dreams where Greg Wallace is licking my head and saying “laaarvley!” over and over again.
Still, even so, under their influence, so far this week, I have produced a leek and potato pie, four Mediterranean vegetable parcels in puff pastry, and an apple tart that ended up probably slightly more dense than your average Black Hole. Oh, and a strange, mis-shapen sausage roll thing, the runt of the litter, concocted from all of the left over scraps of the puff pastry sheet. See what I mean about it being addictive?
When the BBC isn’t broadcasting Masterchef these days, its output is almost entirely given over to unquestioning and adulatory reporting of UKIP, who scored another victory for racism, bigotry and xenophobia this week, in electing the latest Tory defector, Mark Reckless, in the Rochester and Strood by-election. I struggled with an analogy for what Mr Reckless (crazy name, crazy guy) has done, something along the lines of rats leaving sinking ships, but given the destination of these Tory defectors, that analogy only works if the rats in the analogy then swim to an even more rat-infested hulk, and swarm gleefully aboard. I am not doing very well with my analogies.
Thousands of words have already been expended on why UKIP, a party with no discernible policies, other than send the immigrants home, withdraw from the EU, and possibly privatise the NHS, is so successful, even though it can’t actually deliver on even those limited policies unless it at least holds the balance of power after the next election. Policies don’t seem to be the issue, though. As demonstrated by that painful phone-in after the Clacton UKIP victory, people vote UKIP who have no idea what their actual policies are.
So why do people vote for them, then? Well, since 2010, the ruling Junta, the Blight Brigade, has made sure to keep immigration high on the political agenda, with a combination of talking tough, and scapegoating immigrants (amongst others) for the chaos which their misguided “austerity” was causing in the economy. No money? That’s because Labour gave it all to immigrants as benefits. Local hospital overcrowded/underfunded? – again, all those pesky immigrants. No council housing available? - Yep, the immigrants have got them all. Schools full to bursting, can’t get your child the place you want at the school you want? – It’s those pesky kids of those pesky immigrants. And so on, and so on.
None of this is true, of course, not in any meaningful sense as you or I would understand the term. Each of these statements can, in fact, be carefully picked apart and rebutted. But a careful, measured rebuttal that explains that immigrants are more likely to enter the private rented sector than council housing, and the reason that there is pressure on resources is as much due to under-supply of council houses, schools and hospitals (many of which rely on immigrants for their staff) as to over-demand, falls on deaf ears.
The government has created this genie, hoping it would serve them well in the next election. In fact, it has gone further: it’s deliberately encouraged, in the minds of the public, the erroneous conflation of economic migrants, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims, into one homogenous mass, of which there are “too many of them over here”. There are always useful idiots in the media who can be relied upon to regurgitate this stuff at every opportunity, leavened with the occasional anti EU piece about straight bananas.
The genie worked well for The Blight Brigade while it seemed that they were the only potential master of it. Then along came UKIP, promising to out-Kipper the other parties on all these issues surrounding immigration, and because they are given totally uncritical media coverage, and because their leader (despite being a millionaire former stockbroker) appears to come across as a man of the people, with a fag and a pint of beer in his hand, who never answers any question put to him, the genie is out of the bottle, and will never be put back. The sad fact is that, apparently, there are 16,867 people (42.10% of the electorate) in Rochester and Strood who are bigoted and stupid enough to vote for a party with virtually no policies, because they have swallowed lies pumped out by the party in alleged government, about immigrants.
So, what are the mainstream parties doing about this drift to the fascist right? Well, discounting the Liberal Democrats (as ever) who polled a massive 349 votes, almost twice as many as the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, the main reaction of the Tories and the Labour Party seems to be to er, join the drift, and try and out-Kipper the Kippers. In Cameron’s case, this consists of banging on about his in/out referendum while Theresa May gets busy deporting key NHS workers, people on stretchers, and family breadwinners, leavened with a sprinkling of people suffering from learning difficulties and/or terminal diseases.
Labour’s reaction has been to “toughen up” its own stance on immigration, after having previously apologised for immigration failures that weren’t actually its fault, and sack an MP who “tweeted” a picture of a house in Rochester with a white van parked outside and the windows festooned with the flag of St George, for reasons that still aren’t exactly clear to me. Personally, I have no problem with saying that UKIP are a strange collection of borderline fascist closet racist xenophobic fruitcakes who think being gay causes localised flooding, disabled children should be killed at birth, and women who don’t clean behind the fridge are sluts. I don’t know why everyone seems to have a problem saying it, and keeps pussyfooting around this, especially not Labour, who should be taking the fight to UKIP, not kow-towing to their misguided premises.
It’s not been a good week for Ed Miliband, but when is it ever? The Labour “leader” was also taken to task by Myleene Klass, no less, on some mid-morning TV programme somewhere or other, over his proposed implementation of the Mansion Tax. Instead of telling her that one of the key principles of taxation in a democracy is that fairness demands that those who can bear more of the burden, do so, and drawing the analogy with the Bedroom Tax, which has done much more damage, and to much poorer people, than Myleene bloody Klass, he hemmed, and havered, and possibly quavered. I would love to see Myleene Klass try the same shit on Denis Skinner.
I must admit, I had to Google Myleene Klass, to remind myself that she is famous for once being in a girl band, for having a shower while wearing a white bikini in I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, and for advertising Littlewoods. As a struggling single mum with a fortune of £11,000,000, clearly she is a most deserving case, and I wonder what will happen to the country in the unlikely event of Miliband ever being able to put his tax into operation. On that day, we will lose (by emigration) Myleene Klass, Sol Campbell, and Griff Rhys-Jones, and I have to say that will be a triple whammy so grievous I find myself pondering if the UK will be able to survive at all without these prodigiously talented and useful members of society.
The rest of the news was equally depressing/bizarre. The Royal Mail is considering having to ditch the universal delivery obligation, whereby they have to deliver to every house in the UK every day, all for one single price. This is the inevitable consequence of Royal Mail privatisation, and I pointed out at the time that this would happen. It’s the fault of various people, including Menzies Campbell, Vince Cable, and George Osborne, so when it costs you £4.95 to send a birthday card by DHL to your auntie in Aberdeen, as opposed to 62p for a first class stamp, please do remember who it is you should be giving a kicking at the next election.
That was the depressing. The bizarre was that apparently the Royal Bank of Scotland (which is 80% owned by us and has done very little to pay anything back) is going to be fined a massive amount – the figure escapes me, but its several millions of pounds – by us, for a series of computer problems that prevented us accessing our money. I’m still boggling at this. Every so often, I think I’ve got it, then, ooops, it’s gone again. They owe us 80% of the value of the bank, which they can’t pay back. So we charge them more money for preventing us getting at our money, which will delay them paying back our money even longer. Or something. I don’t know. It’s like repossessing the rags of a beggar. It’s like having an argument with your own leg. Well, I suppose the Bible does say “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out”, but I don’t see how that will help them see their way to keeping up the repayments.
And there appears to have been a conference held somewhere or other in the UK this week to answer the crucial question of “How do Muslims get radicalised”. I gather next week’s conference is on ursine defecatory habits in mixed woodland environments, or possibly the likelihood of smelling incense in the Vatican. Just in case anyone wonders, this is how it happens. If anyone wants to invite me to the next conference, feel free, as long as it’s got disabled access.
There are some people who, though nominally Muslim, have, in fact, a rather extreme view of what their religion demands of them. They are to Islam what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity. Before 2001, there were about twelve of these people, scratching their backsides in a cave in Tora Bora and concentrating on growing a beard like ZZ Top. All that changed after 9/11. The west’s response in Afghanistan could, I suppose, at a pinch, be sort of justified by the need to capture Osama Bin Laden, assuming he was actually guilty, and even though there was no intention of ever putting him on trial.
But the misguided invasion of Iraq, which as I said at the time was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, has been followed by a string of equally ill-starred interventions, Libya, Egypt, Syria, which have had the effect of recruiting hundreds of thousands of would-be Jihadis, all of whom believe in some sort of Universal Caliphate under Sharia Law and all of whom believe that an attack on one Muslim is an attack on all Muslims, and they have a duty to fight back. In this country, the media has given these people (or rather, the Imams and other would-be commentators behind them, who wind them up and send them out to kill) a disproportionate voice. Thus, someone like Anjem Choudary is always popping up commentating on terrorism and similar matters, as though he actually had some mandate to speak for all Muslims. The voices of moderate Muslims get stifled in the crush. The government is busily scapegoating Muslims and keeping the “terror alert” level high, and the thing just feeds on itself. The fact that the Jihadis believe this warped version of things is what matters. You can argue ad nauseam that it’s completely barmy, bonkers and well off the bus route, and it is. Sadly, however, that is what they believe, and that is what needs countering, dispelling, taking apart, brick by painful brick, retracing our steps, rather than blundering on further into the Valley of Death.
Depressed by the stupidity of the news, I have been taking consolation in small things today. At long last, I trimmed my beard, and not before time. It had grown to the extent that I could actually see it out of the corner of my eye. I thought briefly about cultivating it to the exact width of my body, so I could use it to judge whether or not I would be able to get through doors, like cats do with their whiskers, but, at the end of the day, I have a wheelchair for that, so the beard had to go. It was either that, or become a minor Old Testament prophet. For the technically-minded amongst you, it took an electric trimmer, two disposable plastic razors, a generous amount of shaving foam/mousse, and a small pair of nail scissors, but it was worth the effort, as I now look, ooh, all of eighteen months younger.
This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday before Advent, but it is known more colloquially, especially to fans of The Archers, as “Stir-Up Sunday”. Yes, folks, depressing as it may seem, traditionally, today is the day when you prepare and stir your Christmas pudding. The tradition of the whole family gathering together to prepare the festive duff, with each one taking a turn and making a wish as they stir, is said, like many of our best-known Christmas traditions, to have been introduced by the Victorians, specifically Prince Albert. If this is true, at least this is one of Price Albert’s inventions that we can talk about in mixed company, unlike some of the others.
The link with the church arises because the Collect for today in the Book of Common Prayer begins:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The idea being, apparently, that because, by dint of rubric, this collect is always used on the last Sunday before Advent, your servants, cooks and domestics would all be in church that morning, hear the opening lines of the Collect, and then think…Oooh, yes! Time to stir the Christmas pudding. All very Downtown Abbey. Those of us who don’t have domestic help, have to do it for ourselves, of course. If you are interested in preparing a Christmas pudding from scratch, you will need:
8 oz. raisins
8 oz. sultanas
8 oz. currants
2 to 3 oz. mixed candied peel
2 to 3 oz. of chopped glace cherries
8 oz. plain flour
4. oz. breadcrumbs
4 to 5 oz. brown sugar
6 to 8 oz. suet (vegetable suet will do just as well)
A glass of brandy (for the pudding mix. You may wish to add other, further glasses for your own consumption while making the pudding)
Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Allspice, Salt (to taste)
The rind (grated) and the juice (juiced) of an orange and a lemon.
You can mix with milk, soya milk, or water. You also need three eggs, or for the vegan version you will have to make up and mix in an equivalent quantity of egg replacer. You can also adjust the proportions of the fruits to each other according to your personal taste.
Mix all the dry stuff in a huge bowl, add the eggs or egg replacer, folding and beating it in to the mixture, then the orange juice, lemon juice and brandy, then mix and stir in the milk/whatever until it’s all thick and aertex-y.
Spoon the mixture into a large pudding basin (metal) which you have previously greased with butter or marge. Cover the top with a layer of greaseproof paper, which you have also greased on the underneath, then wrap the whole thing in cooking foil and steam it in a huge pan like a bain-marie for six or seven hours. You have to do this on a day when you are going to be able to watch over it, because you need to keep topping it up or it will boil dry. Then let it cool when it’s cooked and put it away somewhere cool and dry until Christmas dinner, when you’ll have to re-steam it using the same rigmarole for another hour or two to heat it through, before serving up! Laaarvely!
Or you could just buy one from Sainsbury’s* (*other supermarkets are available, your soufflés can go down as well as up) as apparently over two-thirds of people recently surveyed said they did. I must admit, when I read that statistic, what really surprised me was that the proportion of people still cooking their own Christmas pud from scratch was still as high as a third.
There is something strangely satisfying about making your own food, though. I thought that the other night, when we were all sitting here in the kitchen, Deb by the stove, Misty in the armchair, and Matilda on her jiffy bag, and I had just taken the pies out of the oven and they were on top of the stove cooling. I found myself giving thanks to Big G, though I doubt he was listening. I think he’s tuning me out, these days. Basically, despite everything, how lucky we are to have food and warmth and a roof over our heads. If I’m really cold, I can fill a hot water bottle. Our animals are warm and well, and not cast out of doors or in the shelters. True, any or all of these could be snatched away from us suddenly, by unforeseen events – life is a dangerous business, eat the apple pie first. God willing, though, we’ll have our usual quiet, unobtrusive, low-key Christmas, if we’re all spared, and we’re a lot better off, several nautical miles better off than many, who are out there in the cold tonight, trying to survive, while I sit here in the warm typing this. There but for fortune, go you and I.
There needs to be something done about it. I do not know how, or when, but I do know why, as indeed anyone does who thinks about it. If we’re going to do any stirring, as well as our Christmas puddings, we maybe need to be stirring up the feeble and apathetic excuses for politicians, in government and in opposition, to do something to reverse the growing numbers of homeless, and provide more social housing. Obviously that’s not going to happen by Christmas, but the fact that it’s going to take a long while to accomplish shouldn’t deter us. In fact, it means we haven’t got a moment to lose. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Whether or not you observe Christmas, or indeed Christ (which can often be two different things, these days!) the basic needs of food, warmth and shelter are common to all humanity. Is it too much to ask of our politicians that by, say, next Christmas, someone, somewhere, should have a serious attempt at sorting the problem out?
In the meantime, I am going to start work on a Christmas pudding of my own. While I can, I still want to be able to cook, and feed my family, though the animals won’t be allowed any, as sultanas and similar are bad for both dogs and cats. I might have a go at making them something different though, something extra, a bit nearer the day.
Next week is looking pretty similar to last week, but then that, too, is pretty much par for the course, these days. At some point, soon, I need to have a discussion with Deb and take a decision one way or another whether to stand as an independent for the constituency of Colne Valley at the next election. Apart from anything else, it would probably add yet more strain to our lives, financial and otherwise, and of course I would have to find twelve electors to nominate me in the first place. But that’s next week’s problem, because right now, I am off to look for the lucky sixpence, to put in the pudding mix. Failing that, I think I still have a three penny bit somewhere. Laaarvely.