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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Epiblog for St Brigid's Day

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. As far as the weather is concerned, it can be summed up in just three words – more bloody snow. As I type this, the stuff that fell on Thursday is now going, at last, after lingering for two days owing to very cold air temperatures, although it’s still evident where it’s packed down hard and frozen in dips and hollows.

Debbie was praying hard for College to declare a “snow day” on Thursday morning, when it was coming down in sackfuls and laying thick even on the road outside, although we supposed that would have been gritted. However, the web site said Kirklees College was open for business as usual, which meant Deb had to set off in the teeth of the blizzard, in the grey half-dawn, headlights full on and windscreen wipers at double click, to do her class at Birstall outreach. Needless to say, she was spectacularly late – it took her twenty minutes just to get to Dalton – but, as this is a venue where most of the learners live on the doorstep, at least when she did arrive, there was someone to teach, unlike last week when she struggled to Dewsbury to find only two of them had made it in. 

She got back just after lunch, by which time the snow had stopped, and of course College had declared a “snow day” at lunchtime!  It started coming down again about teatime, so we banked up the fire, locked all the doors, and – unusually – put the heating on, mainly as a precaution against burst pipes. NPower’s charges are pretty high on the Dick Turpin scale, but plumbing bills can be even higher.

The animals regarded the snow with their usual reactions. Matilda’s was disdain, and she stayed indoors for two days straight, either curled up and snoozing in the warm, or with her nose pressed up against the conservatory door, watching the birds and squirrels performing.  Misty did her usual trick of curtailing her visits to the garden to the bare minimum, but despite that, she seemed to be quite happy on Friday to accompany Deb on a five mile walk over Dove Stones. Deb said that the snow up there was as deep as she’d ever seen it, and at one point she had to wade through a thigh-high drift. Elsewhere on the journey, Misty must have lost her sure-footedness, temporarily, and came rolling downhill past Debbie, coming to rest in another drift. She got up, shook herself, and carried on.

Poor Misty has had another problem to contend with this week, as well: Matilda has suddenly decided that she rather likes dog food, and has taken to sticking her snout in Misty’s dish whenever she passes by.  Misty was very unimpressed by this and gave her the “collie dog stare” once or twice.  Matilda chomped on, regardless.  So now we have a cat that is as fit as a butcher’s dog. I have tried to explain to Misty that this is only fair, since she frequently polishes off what’s left in Matilda’s dish, but I foresee some interesting feeding times ahead if they both keep this up.

The birds and squirrels suffered badly in the snow, of course, so we tried to do what we could to feed them.  The squirrels succeeded in knocking down the thing that holds suet blocks (intended for small birds) so it fell out of the tree and onto the decking, which meant Deb had to retrieve it and re-hang it so the birds even got a look-in, which impressed her greatly, as you might imagine.  On Friday morning, when I was getting up, sitting on the edge of the bed to get dressed, I looked outside and, level with the window, there was a branch full of various birds looking in at me, as much as to say “hurry up and put out the peanuts, we’re starving”. Two wood-pigeons, a jay, a blackbird, a magpie, and some other small tits (Google web crawler, please note) all in a row. It was like something out of Alfred Hitchcock.  They’re all waking up and becoming more active now, of course, because in two weeks’ time they’ll all be choosing their mates in a Parliament of Fowles on Valentine’s Day, at least if you believe Geoffrey Chaucer they will.

I have been trying really hard to put into practice my new year’s resolution to cherish every moment, this week, although there are some moments which stubbornly resist cherishing, and are much harder to cherish than others. On Thursday morning I trundled down the ramp to put the rubbish in the bin, to find that the wheelybin lid had frozen shut. Uttering what would probably have sounded like a brief prayer to Bast, had there actually been anyone listening, I scrabbled at it with my frozen fingers to try and crack the ice, while the wind blasted me with horizontal sleet and ice cold water dripped liberally onto me, from the split gutter above.  That took a lot of cherishing.  Other than that, I have had a solid week of knocking things off various lists, but I did make the (very necessary) mistake of making a big list of all the things I have to do between now and September. A big, and scary list. 

The only light relief came on Friday when my normal physio turned up, accompanied by her boss, and a student who just liked to watch, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my persistent shoulder pain. Good job it wasn’t the other way round. Anyway, they removed my upper clothing and then two of them took turns at wrangling my shoulder through various postures while the student took notes. Then they stopped, and we had a bizarre fifteen minute conversation, with me naked from the waist up, about how it was probably more likely acute tendonitis than rotator cuff, before it occurred to them to tell me I was OK to put my top back on and take my manly torso off display. I guess they can only take so much masculine beauty at any one time.

The news from the outside world, or such of it as has percolated through to us in our snowy fastness here, has been the usual mixture of idiocy and nastiness, although it has been leavened here and there with the odd sprinkle of hope. Dr Nadar Abood, of whom I wrote last week, has now been released from the Yarls Wood detention centre, as of Friday, although the legal fight to deport her continues, hanging over her head like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

There are several people whose deportation would inevitably benefit the country, and a prime candidate during the week just gone was Rachel Reeves.  Several bloggers were posing the question “Is it possible that Rachel Reeves could single-handedly lose the next election for Labour?” after her comments about out-cutting the Blight Brigade on the issue of the benefits cap: “Labour supports a cap on benefits. We will ask an independent commission to look at whether the cap should be lower in some areas.” What this overlooks, as several commentators were quick to point out, is that prices aren’t lower in some areas than others, even though wages might be, for a variety of reasons.  Although I don’t think she will lose the election single handedly for Labour, since the whole party seems to have collective amnesia when it comes to the word “opposition”, and their feebleness at conceding the battleground to the Tory/Lib Dim Junta on issue after issue would be risible if it wasn’t so tragic.

The benefits cap has been in the news because Cameron has been spouting about how, if re-elected, the Blight Brigade would also reduce it, universally.  The whole issue, in any case, is a red herring, because the numbers of people actually affected by this is relatively small, in overall benefit terms, but of course it’s presented to Joe Public by the likes of the Daily Mail as if everyone on benefits is living high on the hog, and as if benefits was some kind of lifestyle choice, instead of the grim battle for financial survival that it actually is. Cameron said, in an interview, that the cap was working because “many thousands” of people had been forced by the cap off benefits and into paid employment.  Checking by Channel 4’s fact check team established that in fact the likely number was about 2,000, which is hardly “many”.  They need to watch their step, because the Junta has been reprimanded more than once by the UK statistical authority over its cavalier and selective use of official statistics when it comes to benefits.  However, I suspect there will be yet more partial truths and blatant lies as we get nearer to the date of the vote in May.

In terms of blatant lies, the Daily Mail took the biscuit this week with its story of Kamran Kam, which was headlined: “I’m TOO FIT to work! Gym enthusiast who spends four hours a day working out claims benefits because ‘boring 9 to 5 jobs interfere with his fitness regime’”. It transpired that Mr Kam was in fact an actor, who had “benefited” from lots of acting work, according to his CV. So, not a genuine benefits claimant at all, in fact, or at least someone who, if he did obtain benefits, was some kind of bizarre exception to the normal run of the mill recipient. Yet here in the Daily Mail, this fairytale fiction is presented as if a) it was news and b) all benefits claimants had this attitude.

If I didn’t have so much to do, I would be once again complaining to IPSO (the successor to the Press Complaints Commission) about this article.  However, given their ruling on the previous one I complained about, where the NHS and state pensions (both of which are contributory systems) were described as “handouts”, I might as well save my breath to cool my porridge.

Anyone who was in any doubt about the lifestyle choice aspect of benefits should read the article in the Cambridge Evening News about Tommi Miller:

“A 7-year-old Cambridge boy is battling with a devastating cancer – but his disability benefits have been stopped forcing his mother to go without food. “And devoted mum Ruth Miller, 39, has faced eviction and struggles to pay for heating as she and her husband Kevin, 42, of Thorpe Way, Abbey, have been battling with the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) since May for disability living allowance for their son Tommi.

She said: “It is seriously a joke. I think [they] just want to get out of paying us what we [were] entitled… In the meantime we have nothing to live on. Kevin hasn’t been able to go back to work due to school runs and my other daughter needing emotional support.

“Also, without a vehicle I have to take Tommi out in all weathers. They just really don’t care. I am fed up with battling them. I’ve got no energy or fight left in me.

There are very few occasions when words fail me, but this is one of them. Well, actually, I can think of several words, all of them derogatory and obscene. I will, however, store it away for the next time I hear some braying ass wibbling on about “workshy” people on benefits.

Grant Shapps, for instance.  Alleged internet fraudster (which he denies) and alleged chairman of the Conservative Party, (which he admits to), Mr Shapps is the Jeffrey Archer de nos jours.  This week, he has been reported as saying that said he would not give money to people sleeping rough, as “you don’t know how that support is going to be used”. This is very true, I mean, they might spend it on food or a bed for the night. What he is getting at, of course, is that mainstay of Tory policy, the sturdy beggar, the undeserving poor. The person who takes your handout and spends it on something you don’t approve of.

For some reason, probably because I once replied with a sarcastic note to a previous enquiry, I am now on the Junta’s spam email list for donations, and this week I received the following, ostensibly from Mr Shapps, which reads as follows:

Steve - there are now just 100 days until the next election. 100 days before Britain chooses between David Cameron or Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Between competence or chaos. Between going forward - or going back. Over the next few months, we'll be giving everything we've got to win the fight for Britain's future. And I need you on our team, Steve. So today, I'm asking you to support our campaign by giving whatever you can - so we can reach the voters that will decide the most important election in a generation. We need to tell them about our plan to guarantee a Britain where hard work is rewarded, a Britain where everyone who wants to work can find a job - and a Britain that lives within its means, so our children and grandchildren aren't burdened with mountains of debt. But we can't do that without your support. So please donate whatever you can today - and let's win the fight for Britain's future.

How can I put this in a way he will understand?

Mr Shapps,  I would rather take a cheese grater to my scrotum, then slice off a chunk of one of my buttocks, varnish it, and offer it for sale in the window of a provincial antiques shop. In the words of the late, great John Noakes, "Get down, Shapps!" You see, in the same way as you believe giving money to rough sleepers will only lead to them spending it on things you personally disapprove of, I think the same way about you and your cronies.  You say you want the money for “a plan to guarantee a Britain where hard work is rewarded, a Britain where everyone who wants to work can find a job,” but what you actually want it for is to give it away to your rich chums, or to buy more missiles to fire at Syria, while you are simultaneously closing Sure Start centres and libraries.

According to CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network), an organisation funded by the Greater London Authority, rough sleeping in London has risen from just over 2000 in 2009/10, to just over 4000 in 2012/13. I don’t know if there are any more recent figures available, and in any case these figures don’t take account of the much larger transitory population in temporary accommodation or “sofa surfing”, but I doubt very much these figures will have dropped. You can probably also extrapolate from London’s experience similar trends in other major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, although London does tend to be a magnet for the homeless, so other places may not show 100% increase in the way London has. But even so.  Of course, Grant Shapps didn’t create this situation himself, although he was housing minister for some of the time, so some of it happened on his watch. He was aided and abetted by an unholy triumvirate of Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, and George Osborne, propped up by the Liberal Democrats. I think we should make a note of these names, against the day when indictments may be drawn up.

Osborne himself was photographed while visiting a brewery this week in such a way that his finger, from the hand down by his side, looked for all the world like a shrivelled male appendage.  I suppose the existence of such a picture proves once and for all, if proof were needed, that Osborne is not to be trusted with organising social events in breweries, something which many people have suggested may be the case for a long, long time.

Speaking of people whose urine skills in a fermentation environment may also be called into question, this week’s UKIP gaffe related to prospective parliamentary candidate Mark Walker, who posted a link on his Facebook page endorsing an article written by Golden Dawn the far-right Greek party, which referred to the “plague” of inter-racial marriage.  Walker has been suspended by UKIP, and his candidate’s views must have come as a shock to Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, who has a German wife. But I repeat my question of last week, where do they find these turnips? And how many times can they deny that the ugly face of racism and fascism that peeps out from behind UKIP’s façade is not the real face?  In a week which has contained Holocaust Memorial Day. It behoves us to remember that fascists who start out by suspending people on paper usually end up by suspending people on meat hooks and piano wire.

Anyway, somehow we have blundered through the mire of idiocy to yet another Sunday, and this week I could have had my fill of symbolic and portentous days and anniversaries to write about. Today is the feast of St Brigid (she has alternative spellings but I have democratically decided we’re going with that one.) Tomorrow is both Candlemas, the Christian festival that marks the mid point of winter, half way between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple, and it’s also Groundhog Day, of course, up there in Puxatawney. And finally, St Brigid’s day is also connected with the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Imbolc, one of the four main festivals of the Wiccan year, the others being Beltane (May) Lughnasadh (August) and Samhain (November).  It was widely believed to be unlucky to bring snowdrops, the “fair maids of February”, into the house before St Brigid’s Day/Candlemas.

So, whether you enjoy spotting small furry animals and predicting the weather by their actions, or you just enjoy lighting candles, or you feel like wrapping yourself in goatskins, dancing round a fire and pretending to be Herne the Hunter, this weekend has something for you!  I wrote about the weather-lore aspects of Candlemas last year, but to recap, briefly the idea is:

If Candlemas Day dawns bright and clear
We’ll have two winters, in the one year.

The same idea holds true in Pennsylvania, where if the groundhog catches sight of his shadow in the sunshine, and scuttles off back down his hole, that means there’s more snow to come. In Germany, they have a similar tradition, but about a badger.  Anyway, that’s enough about Groundhog Day.  The same idea holds true in Pennsylvania, where if the groundhog catches sight of his shadow in the sunshine, and scuttles off back down his hole, that means there’s more snow to come. In Germany, they have a similar tradition, but about a badger.  Anyway, that really is enough feeble Groundhog Day jokes. It’s getting to be like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said.

St Brigid has also been identified with pre-Christian cults and beliefs, and there is of course a long tradition of Christianity simply taking over and appropriating not only pre-Christian rituals and dates, but also their actual sites, on which they then built these new-fangled things called “churches”.

The cult of St Brigid, as a harbinger of Spring and as a fertility goddess, was especially strong in rural Ireland, where on the eve of her feast, she was said to visit houses on the eve of her feast and bless those within. Special foods were cooked such as dumplings or colcannon (mashed potato mixed with shredded cabbage) and sometimes an extra portion was set at the table for the saint herself. Occasionally the ceremony went as far as a bed being made up for St Brigid, and a person impersonating the saint would circle the house three times, carrying an armful of rushes, then knock three times on the door for admittance. The rushes went to make up the saint’s bed, or were woven into symbolic “Brigid Crosses”.

Sometimes, a white wand of birch wood was left by the saint’s supposed bed, said to symbolise the wand with which St Brigid touched the hedgerows and made them white again, but with blossom this time, not snow.  Occasionally people left strips of cloth or items of clothing outside for St Brigid, and when these were retrieved the following day, they were supposed to be charged with the power to bless and to cure ills.  The ashes of the fire were also examined the next day, for signs that Brigid had visited, which is now taking us spookily near to the idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney. The Brigid Cross is difficult to describe in words, but it is woven almost in a similar shape to a swastika, and in Western Ireland the cross would often be the centrepiece of an outer ring of rushes, a bit like the native American “dream catcher”.  The crosses were often hung over doors and windows, to protect the buildings and those who inhabited them from misfortune in the coming year.

The other aspect of St Brigid which was often celebrated was her association with holy wells. This still survives today, not only at recognised sites of pilgrimage but also in unlikely places such as place names: “Bridewell” for instance, is another reference to St Brigid, who was also known as St Bride.  Kirkbride and Kilbride also commemorate Brigid.

So, from a weather point of view, at least, if we want to be shot of winter and all that it entails, we need to pray for rain tomorrow and a dull day. I haven’t actually seen the weather forecast for next week, but I am tipping it will be bright and cold, with more snow to come, so that’s us sunk, then.

Of course, by now, you are probably tutting and shaking your head about “superstitious rubbish” and are about to hit the comments button and tell me there was a real, historical St Brigid, St Brigid of Kildare.  There was indeed, she is the patron saint of babies; blacksmiths; boatmen; brewers; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children with abusive fathers; children born into abusive unions; the Clan Douglas; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster; mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; the poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers, and watermen. But not wheelybins.  So, with a fairly comprehensive portfolio and a life which stretched from 453 to 524AD, approximately, there does seem to have been an actual person, an Irish nun, called St Brigid.  A significant number of commentators do believe, however, that several of the attributes of the pre-Christian Brigid have been grafted onto the actual saint, either deliberately, accidentally, or a mixture of both. There is a church in Lumiar, Portugal, which claims to have the relic of the skull of the actual St Brigid, but even if correct, this proves nothing. The miracles which are attached to Brigid are often of a domestic nature, and involve healing.

In 480AD, the historical Brigid is said to have founded the religious institution at Ciall Dara, later Kildare, a site which became a centre not only for worship and spirituality but also arts and crafts, manuscript illumination and metalwork. Giraldus Cambriensis, writing of the Book of Kildare, which was produced there, called it simply the most stunning piece of illumination he had ever seen, saying of it: "all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill". Sadly, the Book of Kildare disappeared at the time of the Reformation, so we will never know, unless it turns up on “Antiques Roadshow” one Sunday night.  The Reformation also saw the breaking of Brigid’s splendid tomb near the high altar at Kildare, and the dispersal of her relics that ended up with her supposed head being in Portugal (having got there via Austria).

Superstitious rubbish or not, the lesson I take from the stories of St Brigid is one of simple faith. There is a lot to be said for it, but it is a neglected art, in these days when we live lives which are essentially disconnected from the seasons and their effects, and we can get mange tout flown in by jet from Kenya, at God knows what damage to the ozone layer.  Spring redeemed, Winter punished, and those who lived lives more closely linked to the cycle of the year, in Western Ireland and elsewhere, knew the importance of doing things right, and doing them at the right time, if you wanted your crops to grow.  Whether or not they had supernatural help from St Brigid is a moot point, but the fact that they believed they did seems to have seen them through. I sometimes wish I could sacrifice or mortgage some of my urbane cynicism for a few hours of certainty, faith and belief. Not for nothing do you need to become as a little child to enter the Kingdom. Unfortunately, these days, I am more likely to be found with a camel wedged tight in the eye of a needle.

Faith is not the same as proof, something which is worth bearing in mind in a week which has seen Stephen Fry set down a record of what he would say to God, if he met him. As far as I can see, there’s no corresponding article by God about what he would say if he met Stephen Fry, but once again, the idea of religion and the spiritual life is staggering under a burden of proof that it can never discharge. You either believe, or you don’t, and that’s that.  It’s like appreciating Jane Austen, or supporting Hull City: you either get it, or you don’t.  I can try and tell you about my own struggles, but they will be different from your struggles. I don’t want to fall into the trap – as described by the Zen masters – of getting you to look at the finger pointing at the moon, rather than the moon itself.

Strangely enough, the thing that bolstered my own on-off faith this week was not a religious text, but rather a poem, Death Is Smaller Than I Thought, by Adrian Mitchell. A Facebook friend drew my attention to it, and I recommend it to you, especially:

Nowadays, in good times or bad,
I sometimes ask my Mother and Father
To walk beside me or to sit with me
So we can talk together
Or be silent.

They always come to me.
I talk to them and listen to them
And think I hear them talk to me.
It’s very simple –
Nothing to do with spiritualism
Or religion or mumbo jumbo.

It is imaginary.
It is real.
It is love.

And though not a word of it can be proved by scientific experiment or in a court of law, that nevertheless sums it up for me: when talking about his dead mother and father, Mitchell is echoing that other great statement of twentieth century defiance of death, by Philip Larkin at the end of An Arundel Tomb – “what will survive of us, is love.”

Tomorrow is a poignant anniversary for me, also because it is seven years since our old ginger cat, Nigel, died. He was a quiet, almost studious cat, the thinking man’s cat, who went about his business unfussily, doing Nigelish things in Nigelish ways, and he died in his favourite chair, warm, fed and happy, on a Saturday night while Match of the Day was on. We should all wish for such a quietus, but I do still miss the old sock.  Anyway, no doubt at some time, tomorrow, in the midst of battle, sorting out the woes of half the world from my wheelchair, I will pause and remember him.  And also pause and reflect that I feel that whatever was Nigel went on, and still goes on, somewhere else.  That at least is an area of simple faith over which I have no trouble, however many people call me out as being delusional. I have been called worse things.

So, rain or snow, we carry on. We close ranks, and we carry on into the second month of 2015.  But for now, I have just witnessed the return of two hungry dogs that will need towelling down, to remove the icicles clinging to their fur following a circuit of Blackmoorfoot, then feeding. So I am off to cherish the smells of wet dogs and dog food. Ewww.

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