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Sunday, 4 January 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of the Epiphany

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  Continuing cold, with the Boxing Day snow turning to nasty, hard-packed ice, and only being dispersed, in the end, by the rain and gales around New Year.  My spirits have taken a plunge, a bit, along with the temperature.  Before Christmas, I was looking forward to doing a lot of things which need sorting out, but which can’t be done in “ordinary time”, when the phone is ringing and there’s post to answer and invoices to raise and work to do. Sadly, this week, which would have been a prime opportunity to get these tasks done, confined to the house by the weather, instead I have mooned around and felt like hibernating, mostly, so the opportunity has been squandered.

Partly it’s been the cold. It’s difficult to accomplish great things when you are muffled up to the ears and you look like Nanook of the North. Also, in perishing weather, so much time is taken up boiling kettles for hot water bottles and fetching in coal, that it tends to eat into what used to be described as my free time. I’ve not been feeling too well, either. But there’s no excuse, really, it comes down to plain old lack of self-motivation.  A golden chance missed. Even answering emails has seemed a step too far, some days.

Matilda has also been giving in to the temptation to hibernate, spending much more time than usual on the settee in Colin’s front room, curled up tight, with her nose in her tail, trying her best, like the rest of us, to keep warm.  She was distinctly unimpressed both by the lingering ice and by the stinging cold rain that eventually banished it, so maybe she’s not such an all-weather cat after all.  This morning saw bright sunshine, and a hard frost, and she did finally venture over the decking, skipping gingerly, and rather comically, given her size, over the frosty ground, to minimise the contact between her toes and the cold earth.

Misty has also had a quiet week, at least in terms of not going missing or trying to throw herself under a car or anything. Other than that, she’s done quite a few miles over the frozen moors in the company of Debbie, Zak and – on one memorable occasion - Ellie.  It was only one memorable occasion, because after doing 10.7 miles over Blackhill and Crowdon, the next day she refused to go, and spent the afternoon curled up on the settee next to the stove, instead. Sort of not voting with her feet, if you see what I mean. I’m not surprised; she’s only got little legs, and the previous day, it had got to the stage where Debbie thought she would have to carry her.  Poor little dog. Still, at least, she’s got some training in for doing Goatfell in the summer.

Other than that, the next most active inhabitants of the neighbourhood have been the birds and the squirrels. I found an old, neglected bag of bird food from last year and made the mistake of broadcasting some onto the ice. Before long, every bird in West Yorkshire descended in a huge, seething feathery mass, only dispersing when the last grain had been gleaned.  The squirrels, too, have been active, looking not only for food, but for stuff to keep them warm during their hibernation. The string of Tibetan prayer flags which we brought back from Arran in the summer has now more or less disintegrated.  I thought this was because of the wind and rain, but, on Saturday morning, Debbie looked out of the conservatory door to see a lone grey squirrel perching on the railing of the decking, with one corner of the Free Tibet flag in its mouth, tugging at it for all it was worth. She shouted “Oi!” at it, coupled with a fairly Biblical instruction to go forth and multiply, and it let go and scampered off, but since then, I have revised my opinion of what happened to the missing prayer flags. I no longer think they were blown away, I think that somewhere high up in the woods, there is a cosy dray, lined with twigs, moss, and Tibetan prayer flags.

One place where they won’t be keeping warm and dry is inside the shed, since some more bits of the roof departed this world during the howling wind overnight at New Year.  New Year’s Eve itself, always the most loathsome time of the year, with its forced bonhomie and Jools bloody Holland on the television, passed quietly and uneventfully. We were both too tired for any social gatherings or anything like that,  so we just saw in the new year quietly, at home.  I did the traditional Granny Fenwick thing of opening up the outside door and sweeping out the old year with a yard-brush, and then welcoming in 2015 before I locked up again, coming back in with a piece of coal.  There were the usual fireworks going off, but nobody was around outside, so my shout of “Happy New Year” was wasted, and died on the cold frosty air.

Because of my rather curtailed days and activities this week, I haven’t been keeping abreast of developments in the wider world. I strongly suspect, at any rate, that al the news at his time of year is made up by a skeleton team in the news room and intercut with archive footage of the Pope and/or the Archbishop of Canterbury on a balcony somewhere.  As far as I am aware, UKIP haven’t made fools of themselves in the last seven days, though I am happy to be corrected if anyone knows different.  This week’s gooneybird award goes to the “Islamic” extremists who hacked the Travelwest web site, replacing it with slogans in favour of Jihad, ISIS, and the usual crap these people come out with. Apparently they were labouring under the misapprehension that Travelwest was some sort of major travel resource for the western world as a whole, when it is, in fact, the site you log onto for bus timetables in Bristol.  Apart from inconveniencing a few Bristolians for an hour or two until the original site was restored, no harm was done, unless you count to the reputation of the dingbats responsible, and who cares about them?

Katie Hopkins is obviously still desperate for attention, and in her situation, I’m not surprised. Non-existent business, fading career, not hat it was ever much to write home about. Soon there will come a day when her phone stops ringing. So she’s trying ever-more outrageous statements on Twitter, which she seems to continually confuse with real life, in an effort to stave off oblivion for a few more months. This week she was jeering at Scotland because the courageous Scottish health worker who has been diagnosed with Ebola had been shipped south to a specialist London facility to be treated. “Not so independent now, Jockland”, or something equally crass, was her comment.  In itself it was no worse than some of the casual racism on both sides that characterised the worst of the online “debate” about Scottish “independence”, but in the context, a particularly cheap gibe, given that anyone with the brain power of an amoeba would realise that the major hospitals for everything are all in London. Obviously that is too high an intellectual bar for Katie Hopkins to conquer. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the thing that would drive her really mad would be if everyone just ignored her, like the brat at a party, until she eventually tries to put her knickers on her head, goes red in the face, and screams until she is sick.

The only other major piece of attention-seeking which I noted this week was on the part of David Cameron, who launched the Junta’s election poster, a picture of a long, straight, empty country road, with a fatuous slogan about staying on the road to economic recovery. Once again he parroted the erroneous shibboleth about having “halved” the deficit. Never mind that this is the very same deficit that he said his party would have abolished by now, back in 2010, even the claim of having halved it is incorrect. It’s only correct if you take the deficit as a proportion of gross national product, and even by that rather arcane measure, it’s only happened because Osborne, the clown, finally abandoned his headlong gallop into the valley of death that is “austerity” and indulged in some Keynesian stimulation of the housing market.  The true figure, based on measurements rational people would understand, is about a third.  But you can prove anything by selectively cherry-picking statistics. I don’t have many wishes for 2015, but I do wish that someone in the media would pick up the discarded mantle of Jeremy Paxman and nail these lying bastards to the wall.

Idiot politicians notwithstanding, as I said, it’s been a largely personal week, circumscribed by home and domestic issues.  And given that I haven’t really attended to them as diligently as I should have done, I don’t have that much to say, this week. (No change there, then!) Saturday marked 29 years since the day my mum died, and the fact that I have now lived to be a year older than she was when she passed, and the fact that we have rolled into yet another year, did little to improve my mood.  I’m not the only person to have lost their mum, obviously. At least two people I know have seen their mothers die in 2014, one a very dear friend of mine for whom I could, and should, have done more in the way of sympathy and support, except that I was busy fighting my own battles at the time, not that that’s really an excuse.  We’ve also lost little Freddie, who was another empty chair on New Year’s Eve, and again, I know other friends have also lost much-loved pets in 2014, so again I have no monopoly on grief.

I’ve looked at the calendar of Saints for today and to be honest they are a fairly unprepossessing bunch.  No doubt saintly enough, and good at interceding and helping old ladies across the road, tying knots, and organising jumble sales, but none of them really grabs me, if you know what I mean.  Plus, given my current penchant for hibernation, and the fact that it’s getting cold and dark outside and the stove is calling me, I think I might just do something totally unprecedented and call it a halt for this blog here. Tomorrow morning, the UK goes back to work after the Christmas break, and it will be the Monday morning not only of the week, but of the year. It will be a shock to the system to swing my legs out of bed and get up to see Debbie off teaching, but needs must, and all that. 

Last week, I completely missed the feast of the Holy Innocents, which was a bad blong to put up on the old scoreboard, and probably down to my semi-comatose state. Today, however, is the feast of the Epiphany.  Although the actual date is 6th January, it’s celebrated this Sunday, apparently. I always know it is 6th January because I knew a girl once whose birthday was that day, and who narrowly escaped being Christened “Epiphiana”.

It’s supposed to mark the visit of the three wise men (or kings, or Magi, depending who you .listen to) to the infant Jesus in his crib, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Whenever I think of myrrh, I am always reminded of the story Alec Guinness told of being surprised by one of the flower-rota ladies while church-crawling somewhere in the home counties. They fell into conversation, about the church, and she confided that they were currently having “dreadful problems with the myrrh”. This surprised A. G., as the place didn’t look to be particularly high church, but all was revealed when she went on to say “yes, that’s why the grass in the churchyard is so long and untidy”.

Those who know more about theology than I do (and they are legion) make parallels between the fact that there were three wise men, and the trinity. Also there are people who have written very convincingly that the gift of myrrh (used in some cases as a funerary perfume in the ancient world) prefigures the death of Jesus on the cross. There is also a strong case to be made for the argument that the Magi submitting to Jesus represents some sort of official acknowledgement or handing over of the cults they represented to the new religion of Christianity.

Although I have a strong liking for Sidney Godolphin’s 17th century poem “Lord When Thy Wise Men Came From Far”, and recommend it to you, for most of us who went to school in the baby boomer era, the poetic vision of the three wise men which we took home with us came from T S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high  prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Apart from the camels, that could be a description of the week I have just had, especially the fires going out, and the melting snow.  Eliot captures perfectly the nature of faith, that is all we have to help us persist when it seems “all folly”.

Latterly, the term “an epiphany” has also come to mean a sudden and blinding breakthrough, a realisation, of the sort the three wise men might have had when they finally reached Bethlehem and found that it was al real, after all.

So, here’s my epiphany, for what it’s worth. My blinding revelation for 2015. Basically, I’ve got two options. Close ranks and carry on, fix bayonets, stand to and man the barricades, or roll over and give up.  The same two options that any of us have, in fact. And since people count on me and depend on me, to feed and defend them, I’ll be carrying on, until further notice.

I wish, as I went forward into 2015, that I had some concrete, tangible hope to offer, both to myself and to others.  All I can cling to at the moment is summed up in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

And it seems to me that we’re very much at that point right now. The last lights of 2014 have slid below the western horizon, and the dawn of 2015 proper hasn’t happened yet. All we can cling to is a few feeble glimmers as yet, and a feeling that the Holy Ghost somehow has matters in hand. All we can do is plod on, blindly following a star, and trust it will all come out in the wash somehow. I find it difficult enough to believe in Jesus sometimes, and Big G and I are scarcely on speaking terms these days. The supernatural element of the Trinity makes about as much sense to me as a supernatural aspect to Wakefield Trinity, but maybe I have to accept that, sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself, and the squirrels and their little kits, woven snug in their nest of prayer flags, high up in the waving, creaking branches, as the trees nightly track the path of a single star across the winter’s dark heavens, know more about trusting in the Holy Ghost than I do, right now. 


  1. Steve I enjoy ed reading this, don't always get round to it. But you must not castigate yourself for feeling unmotivated and not getting on with enough stuff over this period. First of all these were the Christmas holidays, when many people do no work at all and sit and stuff themselves or just take a break. But more importantly, you are not so mobile these days and it has, as you say, been bluddy freezing. If you are not mobile you are going to feel it even more, and ask yourself why do animals hibernate? Because it's cold and it's the best thing to do till it gets warmer. Just allow yourself a week, or two if you need, to do a lot less and just concentrate on keeping warm. I'm sure that when the sun comes out and things warm up, including yourself, you'll get your energy back. Viv