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

Not to mention "Left-Wing Pish"

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Epiblog for St Cuthman's Day

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. Thankfully, the threatened second instalment of snow never arrived. Maybe it was sent by Parcel Force, who knows, but either way, I was very glad of its absence, and this morning as I type this, it’s a bright, hard, sunny, almost spring-y day, or it would be if it were 10 degrees warmer. We’re eight days into February and so far it’s showing no sign of living up to its reputation of being “February fill-dyke”. Dare we hope that, despite the fact that the groundhog apparently saw its shadow and vanished back down its hole again, and the fact that Candlemas Day did indeed dawn bright and clear last Monday, we might have seen the worst of the cold, dark weather, and be at least on the road to spring? It would be a cheery thought, if true, although – as usual at his time of the year – I look at the garden and think of the depressingly large amount of work that is going to be needed to repair the ravages of winter.

The birds and squirrels certainly seem to think it’s spring. In fact, as I type this, there are at least three, if not four, grey squirrels on the decking helping themselves to such peanuts and bird seed as the birds have left from their feeding frenzy earlier this morning when I put the stuff out for them. It’s been a busy week for the squirrels too, as they appear to have stolen the “suet stick” bird feeder in its entirety, complete with all the contents. Last week they’d managed to knock it out of the tree and on to the decking, meaning Debbie had to re-hang it. This week saw a repeat performance, except that it’s vanished altogether now. So either it’s been carried off in triumph by a squad of squirrels, or even one lone hefty squirrel, so that the suet can be devoured in private somewhere, or Brenda the Badger has returned, or possibly the dog has picked it up, taken it down into the garden, and buried it.  Stranger things have happened.  Either way, that’s £4.20 we won’t see again.

Matilda has been largely a spectator as far as the squirrels are concerned, sitting inside the conservatory door, watching them, and the birds, through the glass, swishing her tail and making those strange chattering noises that cats do when they have seen some prey they fancy.  The chances of her ever catching either a squirrel or a bird are, however, minimal, or at least they are this side of a crash diet.  Misty is rather indifferent to the squirrels. Obviously she can see them and knows they are there, and sometimes goes over to the door for a closer look (usually their cue to scatter and re-group) but generally, having given them the collie dog stare, she leaves them to it and goes about her business. It’s about as different as it could be from poor little Freddie, who used to bark even at imaginary squirrels

“Scatter and regroup” could also be the motto of the NHS at the moment.  I’ve always been a supporter of the NHS, and I still am, especially of the ideals behind it and the principles on which it was founded, but we’re once more experiencing the sharp end of dealing with the poor health of an elderly family member at the moment, and the change since my own illness in 2010 is quite marked, particularly in the lack of communication and the unwillingness of the local hospital to put in the effort required to actually cure him.  The overall impression is one of a system under incredible strain, with people at some key points struggling to hold it together.

So it came as no surprise to me to read this week that a report from the leading health “think tank” The King’s Fund, blasted the Junta for its mishandling of the health service and specifically for the disastrous “reforms” instituted in 2010, which were in nobody’s manifesto and which nobody voted for at the election.  I’m not normally a Guardian reader, but you can’t really fault the assessment made by Dennis Campbell, their health correspondent:

The coalition’s shake-up of the NHS was misguided, deepened the growing problems facing A&E units and left it weaker, structurally “incomprehensible” and less able to improve care for patients, according to a leading health thinktank.

In an assessment of the government’s NHS record, the King’s Fund said that the reorganisation forced through by then health secretary Andrew Lansley in the early period of the coalition was “damaging and distracting” for a health service that should have been preparing for the serious challenges it is now confronting.

Prof Chris Ham, the King’s Fund’s chief executive, said: “Historians will not be kind in their assessment of the coalition government’s record on NHS reform. The first three years were wasted on major organisational changes when the NHS should have been concentrating on growing financial and services pressures. This was a strategic error.”

As well as its unsparing critique of Lansley, the 80-page assessment of how the NHS has fared under the coalition also accuses David Cameron of making errors that allowed Lansley to press ahead with a “sweeping and complicated” reorganisation of the NHS in England, even though the coalition agreement of May 2010 had specifically ruled one out.

The whole report is stuffed with criticism of the way the NHS has been handled, but those four paragraphs just about sum it up. It seems increasingly likely that the NHS will be used as a political football in the run up to the election by both sides, along with immigration and, sadly, child abuse.  UKIP’s stance on the NHS is (unofficially, like all their real polices) that they would scrap it and make everyone take out American style private health insurance.  A UKIP councillor in Keighley, Samuel Fletcher, “tweeted” as much in more or less those words last year, and either resigned, or “was resigned” from the party as a result. Except that he seems to have “tweeted” again on 21st January that he hadn’t formally resigned, but was “going back after the elections in May”.  The question “where do UKIP find these turnips” is becoming rather hackneyed by repetition, now, but perhaps the wider question is, “why does UKIP seem to have a completely private and undisclosed set of neo-fascist policies which only come to light when someone in the party is caught out, resulting in a hasty denial?” or even “How many times does this have to happen before it becomes clear that actually, behind the veneer, everybody in UKIP is a closet Nazi?”

UKIP’s stance on child abuse is that it makes a very good bandwagon to jump onto, and from which they can indulge in their usual practice of immigrant-bashing.  UKIP have been making a great fuss and hoo-hah in Rotherham about the child abuse scandal, with Nigel Farage indulging in a shroud-waving, inflammatory visit to the town this week, which resulted in a near-riot when anti UKIP protestors besieged him.  Nobody should be glorying in that situation. When you have anarchy breaking out on the streets, it’s democracy that suffers.

The Rotherham situation is a mess, undoubtedly. I worked near to Rotherham for 21 years, and there is an ingrained stupidity in those South Yorkshire councils which had to be seen to be believed. Barnsley Council, which once sent my cat a poll tax bill, is another organisation that is largely suet from the neck up.  Add to this the lack of funding and the economic collapse of the area post-Thatcher, and the general economic depression in the area, and add to that the fact that nobody dared point out the pattern of abuse by largely young Asian males, or those that did point it out were ignored, out of a false application of “political correctness” and you end up with a pretty toxic brew.  The police in South Yorkshire have also been conspicuous by the absence of any real interest in these cases until the scandal was blown apart, but they have their own fish to fry in the form of allegations of cover ups over Hillsborough and the like.  None of the foregoing is intended to be an excuse for, or an attempt to dismiss, what seems to have happened to these people lightly, merely to point out and to try and understand that the causes are manifold and complex, and not, as UKIP seem to believe, simply down to Muslims/immigrants/asylum seekers/British Asians (UKIP tend not to bother differentiating) molesting young white women.

In fact, turning the abuse into a simple issue of immigration/racism and Muslim-bashing actually obscures some of the other causes and makes it less likely that they will be dealt with properly. Not that this prevented a UKIP Plymouth branch official from tweeting this week: "South Yorkshire police says PC Hassan Ali who was under investigation in relation to child abuse in Rotherham has died in a car crash KARMA!" Needless to say, UKIP claimed later that they weren’t expressing UKIP policy, it was all down to some “freewheeling” amateur, etc. etc. Yeah, right. 

Another one who never gave a stuff about Rotherham before this blew up is Eric Pickles, the Junta’s Communities Secretary, but again this week he suddenly realised that there is an election in 80 days so he had better be seen to be doing something about child abuse in Rotherham.  Normally, his only interest in northern councils is in squeezing their rate support grant as much as he can, disproportionately, in order to soften the blow of “austerity” on southern, Tory-led, councils in Tory constituencies. This contributes to their being starved of funds, and having to put up the council tax, a situation which isn’t helped when gong-seeking councillors embark on grandiose projects such as channelling public funds into bicycle races. This week, in the wake of the damning report by Louise Casey, Pickles appointed five high-powered civil servants to take over the day-to-day running of Rotherham from the Rotherham Council “Cabinet”, which resigned en masse after being slated in Louise Casey’s report.

Again, this is going to sound like I am defending Rotherham Council, which I am not: clearly they were duffers at child protection, for the cocktail of reasons given above and probably more besides which are yet to emerge from the woodwork in the plethora of post-resignation further enquires, reports, and possibly criminal proceedings. But there is also a principle here: bad as they undoubtedly were, Rotherham Council were at least elected, and there is another election due in 80 days time. They could have stayed on for that time in a caretaker role (we do have a caretaker, zombie parliament at the moment as an example to follow) and then stood down in May.  That would have been a more democratic outcome, if anybody actually cares about democracy any more, but then it wouldn’t have gathered those all-important pre-election headlines for Eric Pickles.

It must be pretty depressing to be an ordinary British Muslim right now, one of the silent majority who just want to get on with their lives and are never asked for their opinions on Jihad or Caliphates.  In the aftermath of Rotherham, apparently people have taken to ringing up Asian taxi firms and asking for a “groomer”, instead of a taxi.  And another story which caught my eye this week was the sharing on Facebook of a CCTV picture of a left-hand drive car with Dutch number plates which was said to have been used in an incident when the two occupants (who “looked like Muslims”) are supposed to have shouted insults as two teenage girl Army cadets outside a training facility in Gateshead, and threatened to “behead” them.  What puzzles me is not whether this happened or not, I am sure it did, there are always more idiots outside than in, especially these days – but what puzzles me is that, given the CCTV clearly shows the car’s number plate, and given that the UK is infested with CCTV, number plate recognition, and the like, and given that we’re presumably able to pick up the phone and talk to the Dutch police, why was it felt necessary to release the CCTV at all, especially as, according to one report, in the Daily Telegraph, so it must be true, detectives “have already traced the car”?

What it has done, of course, is unleash a wave of furious comments on social media from people indulging in Muslim-bashing, and a rash of articles in the press comparing it to the murder of Lee Rigby.  If these people were really adjudged to be such a comparable threat, though, what good is served by tipping them off and  plastering them and their vehicle and number plate all over Facebook?  The only circumstances in which releasing this CCTV seems to make sense is as part of a deliberate attempt by somebody (the papers say “officers”, but whether police, army or some other kind of “officers” is unknown) to release the picture, to stoke up general anti-Muslim feeling.  As far as I know, there are no comparable official appeals via social media to trace, for instance, EDL members who abuse Muslim women in the street for wearing the hijab, but maybe that just counts as “banter” these days, I don’t know.

And so we came to today, the feast of St Cuthman of Steyning. Some people spell his name Cuthmann, with two n’s at the end, but it’s the same bloke. He was born about 681AD and was known as an Anglo-Saxon hermit, who also built a church.

The main sources for Cuthman’s life are documents held at the Abbey of Fecamp, in Normandy, and his origin is, as you might expect after such a period of time, open to dispute. His birthplace has been given as Devon or Cornwall, but a more likely place is the alternative suggestion of Chidham, which is near Bosham, on Chichester Harbour. If he was born at Chidham, it would put him in the right area and at he right time, to have been preached at by St Wilfred, and maybe even to have been converted by him.

He is recorded in the source documents for his life as having been a shepherd during his time at Chidham. One day, needing to go and find some food, but having no-one to watch his flock in his absence, he ended up drawing a line on the ground around the sheep with his staff, and on his return he found that, miraculously, every last one of them was still there within the area he had marked. Apparently there is, or there was, a field in Chidham known locally as “St Cuthman’s Dell” or “St Cuthman’s Field”, in the middle of which is, or was, a large stone on which Cuthman habitually sat, and the stone itself was reputed to have unspecified miraculous powers. It would be interesting to know if either the field, or indeed the stone, can be found today. 

Apparently, according to legend, Cuthman was forced to beg door to door and care for his paralysed mother, after his father died. Seeking a better way of life, he devised a one-wheeled cart, something akin to a wheelbarrow, and, dumping his mother in it, set off walking eastwards from Chidham, into the rising sun. The wheelbarrow was partly stabilised by a rope harness which took some of the weight and went around Cuthman’s shoulders.  When the rope broke, he fashioned a new one out of willow twigs, and continued on his way, declaring that when this new rope broke, he would stop at that point, wherever he was.

A few miles further along the coast, at what is now Steyning, the second rope went, and Cuthman, true to his word, declared that he would stop there and at that very point, he would build a church. There is no record of his mother’s reaction, but she must have been wondering by now what the hell she had got herself into.  Anyway, after suitable prayers, and pausing only to build a rudimentary hut to shelter himself and his mother, he commenced work on what eventually became St Andrew’s Church. 

As with all building projects, throughout the ages, it didn’t run exactly to plan. One particular roof-beam was proving to be a problem, and things ground to a halt until one day, a stranger showed Cuthman how to resolve the issue. Cuthman expressed gratitude and asked the stranger’s name, only to be told, enigmatically, “I am he in whose name you are building this church.” Presumably, especially given the reference to carpentry, we are meant to infer that this was Jesus himself, offering a bit of holy DIY advice.

Various other legends, some more dubious than others, have become attached to St Cuthman, notably the one which attempts to explain the origin of Chanctonbury Ring and The Devil’s Dyke on the Sussex Downs.  The devil was angered by the spread of Christianity in England so he had decided under the cover of darkness to dig a channel to let in the sea, and drown the Christians in Sussex. Somehow (this bit is left unexplained) Cuthman got wind of the scheme, and set out to thwart Old Nick. He shoved a local cockerel off its perch in the middle of the night, causing it to crow loudly and angrily at being thus disturbed, then he held up a sieve with a candle behind it.  The devil, hearing the cock crow and seeing what he thought was the sun rising, was tricked into thinking daylight was coming, and fled, leaving his excavations unfinished, which are today known as Chanctonbury Ring and The Devil’s Dyke.

A likely story, obviously, and Chanctonbury Ring is certainly some kind of pre-Christian hill fort or similar. I don’t know about the Dyke, I am not much of an expert on the dykes of Sussex, never having risen above the status of enthusiastic amateur, though I am sure it would make a great PhD thesis. By 857AD, though long after Cuthman’s time, there certainly was already a church at Steyning, because records show that King Ethelwulf of Wessex was buried there in that year.  When the Normans came striding into Sussex, after the conquest, dividing up the county and parcelling it out to William’s favourites, they must have found the local cult of veneration of St Cuthman already up and running, because Norman charters refer to Steyning as “Cuthman’s Port”. The Normans gathered up Cuthman’s relics and took them back to the Abbey at Fecamp, which, perversely, probably actually led to more people hearing about him, because they were in a place there was now a means by which his deeds could be recorded on paper (well, vellum, probably) and not just passed on orally from generation to generation. In the taxation records of Henry VIII in 1522, a reference can be found to taxes being levied on the “Guild of St Cuthman”, at Chidham, and in 2007, the dedication of St Andrew’s Church in Steyning was amended to become “St Andrew and St Cuthman”.  A chapel in the church remains dedicated to him, and he is depicted in stained glass and in a statue, and of course the “logo” of the town of Steyning, as appearing on its town “sign”, is a rendition of St Cuthman pushing his mother in the wheelbarrow.

So, what are we to make of the life of St Cuthman? I will ignore the obvious answer, a hat, or maybe a brooch. Obviously there’s no way of unweaving the historical facts (if any) from the legends at this great distance from the past, and one should always know one’s devils from one’s dykes, but I suppose he did display the virtues of perseverance and resourcefulness, and compassion to his dear old mum. Having said that, and speaking as someone myself these days who only goes anywhere when someone delivers them like a parcel and it has to be planned like a military operation, one can only hope that she actually wanted to be dumped in a wheelbarrow and carted off to start a new life somewhere.

It is a scary thought that, had I developed facioscapularhumeral muscular dystrophy in the dark ages, it would have been the equivalent of a swift death sentence. Scary because, if the continued dismantling of the NHS is allowed, the dark ages is where we’re heading back to.  “Wheelchair Services”, the local NHS Trust department that dealt with after-care and maintenance and fitting and supply of wheelchairs has already been “privatised” to a non-NHS company, so maybe I had better start work on constructing a rudimentary wheelbarrow and finding a strapping young shepherd lad to push me around in it.

Still, spring may be just around the corner – the snowdrops are out in the front garden, and Maisie’s indestructible daffodils are flourishing, although not yet in flower.  It’s a mad, bad old world, with war raging in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, and God alone knows what next week will bring in terms of our own daily struggle to keep going. But spring always makes me feel hopeful that something might still be achieved, something won back, something recovered from the chaos.  I’ve been listening a lot to Elizabethan madrigals all week, it’s the sort of music that makes me think of pastorals and this time of year, and the green English countryside thriving and growing, and let’s face it, there’s nothing like a mad wriggle in spring. If it keeps the spirits up, what’s the harm? Especially when it seems sometimes that God has withdrawn his approval from many of my activities, or at least has stopped listening. Maybe he/she/it is putting all his/her/its energies into the long run-up needed for spring to be sprung.

Of course, the composers of such gems as “Though Amaryllis Dance in Green” and “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above” were writing in a very closely defined, artificial genre, where nymphs and shepherds strayed and dallied in an idealised courtly countryside, and shepherds discussed the issues of the day. Given that my own ancestors include as least one bona fide shepherd, Thomas Thornhill of Gainsborough, I suppose I feel what you might call almost a “genetic affinity” with the pastoral tradition, which brings us full circle to good old St Cuthman again. 

I don’t have any sheep, but at least we’ve got a sheepdog.  It’s freezing cold, but we’ve got some coal. I’m hungry, so I’m going to cook cauliflower cheese. Count your blessings, Steve, and cherish what you have.

No comments:

Post a Comment