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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of St Onesimus

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  The weather has at least calmed down, and entered what the weather forecasters rather quaintly refer to as a “quiet phase”, as if having worn itself out snowing and blowing a gale, the weather has overtired itself and is having to have a little lie down. In practical terms, that means the equivalent of living in a Tupperware box, with grey skies and cold days.  When the sun does occasionally make its presence known, it’s with the feeblest of glimmers, what Bob Copper once referred to as “the counterfeit gold of February sunlight.”

Still, it’s better than snow and ice, and there are encouraging signs that things are starting to happen on the Spring front in general.  The snowdrops have increased their numbers since last week, and Maisie’s indestructible daffodils have been joined by their more elusive brethren, the ones that got left behind beside the pond when we thought we’d dug them all up, so we shall soon have, in a few weeks, daffodils front and back.

Matilda has been spending an increasing amount of time out of doors, and when she’s not actually outside, she’s again been indulging in her second favourite pastime, that of sitting just inside the closed conservatory door, bird- and squirrel-watching.  The birds have been very busy, and seem to be increasing in numbers every day. This week of course included Valentine’s Day, the day on which wild birds traditionally choose their mates for the coming year:

Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,

As Geoffrey Chaucer tells us in The Parliament of Foules. But we don’t have to take his word for it: the traditional English folk song, Dame Durden, as sung by the Copper family, takes place:

…on the morn of Valentine,
When birds begin to prate,
Dame Durden and her maids and men
Were all together met…

I didn’t see any particular evidence of the birds choosing their mates on Saturday, but Matilda did choose that day to go missing from 11AM until 7PM, thus lending further credence to the “other house” theory. Wherever her other house is, they are not feeding her, because when she got back she demolished two sachets of Felix, back to back, straight off the bat.

Misty has been joined in the latter half of the week by Zak and Ellie, who have come to stay while Granny is on another one of her Elizabethan progresses through the southern portion of her realm.  So on Friday and Saturday, Debbie set off with Misty and Ellie attached to her via Dyneema ropes and karabiners, with Zak trotting obediently behind.  They did at least seven miles each time, which is meat and drink to a border collie like Misty and a large dog like Zak, but poor little Ellie, trotting along on her little terrier legs, slept very soundly, both days, after eating a huge meal on her return.  She’ll have to do a lot more training before she conquers her first Wainwright.

I’ve had mountains of my own to climb this week, mainly comprising paperwork, which seems to multiply exponentially the moment you turn your back on it.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a geologist or a genealogist, you look away for a moment and when you look back, a whole new range of administrative alps has thrust itself upwards, obscuring the horizon.

This has not been made any easier by the fact that the socket that holds the right arm of my wheelchair in place has malfunctioned (I think the bolt holding it on to the frame has sheared) so my wheelchair tray is listing at about 25 degrees, left to right. I have rung up to get the chap who repairs NHS wheelchairs to come and fix it, which is normally a five minute call at worst, but this time the number was unobtainable. Following a tedious round of phone tag table tennis, I eventually found out that “wheelchair services” has been taken back “in house”, as part of the continuing dismantling of the NHS, no doubt. Finally in possession of the right number, I dialled it, only to find it was an ansaphone.  Eventually they rang me back, and it seems the earliest it can be fixed is Monday.  Truly marvellous.  So I am typing this at a slant, which is probably why it will seem even more biased than usual. My old chum, Bernard, bless him, descended on us like a deus ex machina this week and cheered me up considerably, and even he tried to have a go at fixing it, but without drilling out the sheared bolt, we were stuffed.

I consoled myself with watching the final episode of the re-run of Smiley’s People, the 1982 televisation of the John Le Carré book, which has been re-shown on BBC Four over the last four or five weeks. I feel a connection with the book because I bought it in hardback the day it came out, and I actually met John Le Carré (briefly, and eminently forgettably, for him) when he gave a lecture at Hull University, following its publication.  Anyway, it was good to renew my acquaintance with Alec Guinness’s masterly portrayal of George Smiley. Debbie, however, was not a fan. When it finished, I mentioned to Deb that I quite fancied visiting Switzerland (where the final episode was largely set). “Good idea,” she said, “that’s where Dignitas is, isn’t it?”

Grim humour has sometimes been very necessary this week. UKIP have at least done their best to keep us entertained. They do add to the gaiety of nations, although perhaps that’s not the most appropriate phrase for Rev. George Hargreaves, who has been parachuted into the Coventry South constituency as UKIP’s candidate in May. Rev. Hargreaves apparently wrote the song “So Macho” for Sinitta in the 1980s, but despite this major contribution to the canon of gay disco anthems, and despite having a former flatmate who died of AIDS, Rev Hargreaves had a previous attempt to be elected when he campaigned (for the Scottish Christian Party, which he founded) on a platform which included proposals for the reinstatement of Section 28, banning of gay adoption and the prohibition of ‘acceptance or approval’ of homosexuality in diversity training, outlawing embryo research and introducing mandatory Christian religious education into schools.  He has also campaigned to have the dragon removed from the Welsh flag, because it is a symbol of Satan, apparently.  I’m not sure, as I type this, how much of this bilge is actually official UKIP policy, but since Nigel Farage tends to make it up as he goes along, neither is he.  One thing’s for sure, Rev Hargreaves must have graduated magna cum laudae from the UKIP fruitcake academy that year.

Meanwhile, in Thurrock, UKIP councillor Robert Ray has been banned from driving for 19 months and fined £1,160 at Basildon Magistrates’ Court, and, yes, you guessed it – suspended, after admitting drink driving following a party last June. It must have been a good party, because he was double the legal alcohol limit when he was arrested by police after asking them, “Do you know who I am? I am a prominent councillor, I know the police commissioner.” I find myself wondering what happens when it gets to the stage where UKIP has more suspended members than members.

UKIP are undoubtedly stick-on comedy gold, although of course deep down they are just as sinister as all the rest of them, possibly more so.  We should be thankful they are such an inept bunch of clowns. To re-enact the Holocaust, they would need to make the trains run on time, which is clearly beyond their capabilities.  Sadly, the Junta have proven more efficient at killing people off.  Andrew Sherratt, of Stoke-on-Trent, died last week after having his disability benefits stopped by Hanley Jobcentre, despite his being terminally ill.  And earlier this month, a coroner ruled on the case of Malcolm Burge, 66, who faced a bill of £800 because of a payments mix-up by Newham Council. With a bank balance of only £50, he took the only way out he could see when his repeated letters to the Council were ignored because they were engulfed with a massive caseload of Housing Benefit-related queries caused by “austerity” policies.

On 23rd June 2014 he drove to Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, parked up, and ignited a 20-litre can of petrol in the passenger footwell.  He suffered 100 per cent second-degree burns to his body, and was rushed to hospital by air ambulance, but he could not survive his injuries. He died at 5AM the following day.

Following the coroner’s ruling of suicide, the DWP acknowledged this week that it has reviewed 49 cases where employment benefit recipients were “sanctioned” – having their payments stopped for a period of weeks or months after failing to comply with the rules – and subsequently died. Esther McVey, the employment minister, this week told MPs no link had been found between the deaths and the sanctioning policy. She told the work and pensions select committee: “We ensured that we followed all of our processes correctly.” Yes, well, quite. In fact, there’s your trouble, as the Dixie Chicks would no doubt say if they were here right now. Perhaps it’s time to re-think having a “process” which cuts people off from benefits to which they are entitled for no good reason, then drives them to the brink of suicide and beyond? Just a thought.

When street trader Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in December 2010, as a protest against the repressive, harsh policies of his government, the Junta generally hailed it as a heroic gesture, and indeed it was one of the key moments in the Arab Spring, that led to us meddling in yet more Middle Eastern countries with all of the attendant expense and no discernible benefit. What I can’t understand is why someone who sets himself on fire in Tunisia is a hero, whereas someone who does the same thing, and for many of the same reasons, in Cheddar Gorge, doesn’t even merit a public enquiry. Perhaps Cameron is playing his cards close to his chest, and planning a surprise missile strike on the Department for Work and Pensions. We can but hope.

Double standards from politicians are nothing new, of course. In the same way as it came as no surprise to me when Lord Fink (a wonderful name, redolent of Bertie Wooster’s chum, Gussie Fink-Nottle) was shown to be avoiding tax. My default position with the political establishment is that, to a greater or lesser degree, they are all at it, and they are all lying, in the same way that I always assumed the NSA was bugging everybody anyway. Having said that, a spectacular example of double standards has occurred this week. Compare and contrast, as it used to say on exam papers, the reaction to the murders by (at least nominal) Muslims of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo with the reaction to the murders this week of three Muslims, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by a self-confessed white atheist.

The victims, all shot in the head, execution-style, were identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh, North Carolina.  Craig Hicks, 46, whose Facebook profile read “atheists for equality” and who had posted pictures of himself toting a loaded .38 calibre revolver, turned himself in to authorities, and has now been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. I may have missed the parades along the Mall in Washington DC to protest about the killings and to call upon white atheist militants to integrate with society. I may have missed Richard Dawkins being quizzed on prime-time TV about whether it’s acceptable to have atheists being radicalised and then turned loose in society. I probably missed the politicians, strolling arm in arm for yet another photo opportunity linked to violent murder, as they did in Paris. I must have missed the BBC sending a planeload of correspondents to report direct from the scene.  I certainly missed the bit where the NRA says there are too many guns in the hands of irrational people in the USA, and they plan to lobby for stricter control. Yes, I certainly missed that bit.  Anyway, I’ll say it here and now: Je Suis Deah Barakat.

In the same was as irrational wingnuts in the Muslim community are (thankfully) in the minority (although we have gone out of our way since 2001 to increase their numbers) by no means all Americans are gun-toting executioners motivated by a warped view of “religion”. To balance up Craig Hicks, we have the example of Kayla Mueller, whose death during an allied air strike, while being held hostage by ISIS, was also announced this week.  In her last letter to her parents in Prescott, Arizona, she wrote:

"I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free."

which is a modern-day echo of Lovelace’s

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take them for an hermitage…

But even so, she is gone, for all her bright idealism, gone into the world of light, and we alone sit lingering here, as Vaughan put it.  And this world is a sadder place for her loss.

One way or another, it’s been a grim week, despite the first showings of maybe something approaching Spring stirring in the undergrowth.  There are some times, some days, some events, that get a hold of your faith and shake it with all the ferocity of a terrier shaking a rat.  And if that faith is only clinging by a thread, if it’s currently as transient and substantial as a spider’s web on a dew-drenched hedgerow, then it’s not going to be able to withstand much shaking.  All week I have been trying to make some sense of the death of four-year-old Mitzi Steady, killed in Bath when a tipper-truck went out of control and hit her and her grandmother on a zebra crossing.  It’s been with me all week, nagging at me, always there, like a pebble in my shoe.

Today is the feast of St Onesimus, who I originally chose out of the various saints whose feast day it is today because I knew his silly name would allow scope for making jokes about him inventing the onesie, and also give me an opportunity to poke fun at the inveterate letter-writing of St Paul. But it all seems so… feeble, so useless, in response to the tragedies represented by Mitzi Steady, Kayla Mueller, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Malcolm Burge, and Andrew Sharratt. It doesn’t seem right that I should come on here and make folksy, whimsical observations when these people are senselessly dead for no reason.

If anything, I should be ditching St Onesimus and, instead, putting up a spirited defence of Big G and explaining why all this was deemed necessary.  Why I should have to take one for the team is also a mystery to me, but I suppose if I try and explain why I feel there is a something, underlying everything, it comes with the territory. I was going to go on and say words to the effect of “not that God’s ever gone out on a limb for me,” and make some sort of joke about him appearing as a witness at a benefits tribunal. But of course, Christian convention would assert that God, or at least Jesus, did go out on a limb for me, quite literally, in the case of the Crucifixion.

But still, how can it justify Mitzi Steady? Better people than me have tried to explain or justify the death of a young girl. Dylan Thomas, in his Refusal To Mourn The Death By Fire of a Girl in London, takes a very uncompromising view:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my theory that maybe God is everything that has ever happened in all possible universes, and a tragedy in this universe was balanced up automatically by a joyous occurrence somewhere else. You might call this the “Rosemary’s Sister” explanation, as in the song by Huw Williams where, despite being killed by a Doodlebug in the Blitz at the age of nine:

High upon the heavens, in a host of angels’ wings,
Rosemary’s sister will be dancing…

Which is the hopeful counterpoint to the first part of the chorus:

You fly high, your dreams are all in vain
One moment you are laughing and the next you cry in pain

Which sums up the inexplicable brutality of life.  So, we have some comfort, I suppose, in the “many worlds” theory.  It is a similar attempt to the explanation proffered by Canon Henry Scott Holland in 1910, when he wrote his sermon on the death of King Edward VII, Death, The King of Terrors, a famous extract from which has circulated ever since:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

I first came upon this text when someone sent it to me on the death of my mother in 1986. It has been quoted dozens of times in many contexts, but this week I was prompted to read the entire text of the sermon, which I had not done before. Later on, he refers to Edward VII, lying in state.

So that black coffin harbours its black secret. But over it and round it and about it the light of Whitsuntide sweeps in to scatter all our fears. Why are we afraid? Have we not the gift of the Spirit? Has it not swept in upon us with a mighty wind? Is it not in our heart as a fire?

Well, that’s as maybe. Sometimes I feel like I do have “the gift of the spirit”, but most times these days, I don’t. I do still think there’s a something underlying everything, but I can’t describe it, or explain why it allows such things to happen, other than the fragments I have already offered – that its ideas of justice and mercy are almost diametrically different to ours and inexplicable to us.  Other than that, and the fact that at every disaster you will always see the helpers, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit gathers together and responds in a positive way, I have nothing to put forward.

The only other thing I can offer is Spring. Spring itself, the annual redemption, that rises again out of the death of, the depths of, Winter. It’s a poor consolation to say to someone who has just lost their four-year-old daughter, wiped out for no reason, that it will soon be Spring, but it may be that the message we are supposed to get from the turning of the seasons is that nothing is permanent, not even suffering and death. That people have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.

Well, this has been a cheery little missive, and I find myself wondering if St Onesie might not have been a better bet after all.  Next week brings shrove Tuesday, which can only mean one thing, apart from pancakes for tea – Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. As the Gawain poet says:

“After the Christmasse, comes the crabbed Lentoun…”

Next week also brings the promise (or should that be the threat) of going off for two or three days in the camper van, it being half term and all. A consummation devoutly to be avoided, unless the weather perks up by several tens of degrees.  But for now, it’s Sunday teatime and I have three hungry dogs, one hungry cat, and one hungry wife to feed, although the latter has just started independently on the poppadoms. Tomorrow brings the wheelchair man, the Sainsbury’s man, and possibly even the garage man, if the switch for the camper’s reversing light arrives. But today, today we have the naming of parts.

No comments:

Post a Comment