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

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Sunday, 19 April 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of St Alphege

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  But at least we’ve had nice weather for it, by and large.  We’ve even had the conservatory door open, on occasion, which saves having to let Matilda specifically in or out. And, just as they did last April, the catkins have begun to fall on the decking, the Rowan is in bud, and there are even some little green shoots on the climbing clematis.

The squirrels have been busier than ever, and once again I’ve observed them throwing crusts of mouldy bread out of the dish I put out for the birds, in order to get at the sunflower seeds underneath, the cheeky little sods. Long-standing readers of this blog (who should, perhaps, take the weight off their feet and have a cup of tea) will recall that, a couple of years ago, Wheelchair Services, who are based in Park Valley Mills, down in the valley bottom and overlooked by our back garden, actually named all the squirrels that came regularly to the bird-feeders they had placed outside their offices, and one of those thus named was “Wilbert White-Ear” who sounds like a Viking chieftain but was, in reality, a squirrel with one white ear. The clue is in the name.

Anyway, this week I am certain I have seen Wilbert White-Ear, or another squirrel with one albino ear – it’s always possible there is more than one. The reason I particularly noted him was that his career as a squirrel almost came to a premature and nasty end, because he chose to come and riffle though the nuts looking for the tasty ones at a time when the door was not only open, but Matilda was sitting just inside it.  My heart was beating fast, because the last thing I want is for Matilda to start slaughtering hapless wildlife, even though it is in a cat’s nature to do so. It was my own fault, because by putting out crusts regularly for the birds, I have also – to a certain extent – tamed the squirrels and, as Antoine de Saint-Exuperay says, you are responsible for what you tame.

Inititally, Matilda was transfixed by the effrontery of the squirrel, but then some vague, vestigial cat-nature stirred within her, and she disappeared round the door with a lash of her tail and a wiggle of her bum. Wilbert, however, had seen her coming, and by the time she had lumbered half-way across the decking, he was more than half way up the ivy-covered tree, and metaphorically thumbing his nose at her. The final result was 1. Wilbert, 2. Matilda and several lengths separated 1. and 2.

Compared to Matilda, Misty’s had a quiet week, with only the odd 13-mile daily yomp over the moors to alleviate her relative canine boredom.  Now that the fireworks seem to have stopped for a few weeks, she’s also been allowed off lead again, and trots along in convoy with Zak at Debbie’s heels like a good ‘un. In fact, the one least likely to come back from a walk is now Debbie, who this week decided, midway through a transit from Wessenden to West Nab, to pause and climb Raven Rocks.  She got up there OK, but it took her about half an hour to get safely down. The dogs, meanwhile, lay at the foot on the climb, patiently waiting for her to fall off, and no doubt wondering where she kept the tin opener, and which of them was going to drive home.

It has been the last week of leisure, prior to us being pitched back into the world dictated by Debbie’s teaching timetable again, as from tomorrow.  We have, unusually for us, been able even to watch a little TV now and again.  At the conclusion of one such evening’s entertainment, while waiting for the kettle to boil so I could fill a hot water bottle before scuttling through the cold house to bed, Deb suddenly said to me “It’s a shame Donald’s not going to be in it any more.” For some reason, I though she was referring to the character Donald, of Donald and Jacqueline fame, in ITV’s Benidorm. A reasonable assumption, since the actor who played him died recently. After five minutes of cross-porpoises, it turned out, however, that she was referring to the bloke who plays Captain Donald Cregan in Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, who is apparently really called Dann Florek. I guess you had to be there.

Mind you, she does have a point. One of the other late night thud-and-blunder cop shows we found ourselves subjected to was Blue Murder, in which several members of a family all confessed to the same murder even though they were innocent, to protect one of their own, who was the true culprit. I thought, only momentarily, that the character playing the alcoholic grandfather and patriarch of the clan was David Threlfall, an actor whose work I’ve admired ever since he was Frank Gallagher in Shameless.  I made the mistake of saying this out loud, and Debbie poured scorn on my powers of recognition:

“I’m surprised you ever recognise anybody. Do you ever look in the mirror and think ‘Oh, look, it’s Father Christmas,’ before adding ‘Oh, no, hang on, it’s me!’”

There was no ducking that one. If you ask me, it all started going downhill when we allowed them to vote and taught them to drive.  Deb has achieved at least one of her short-term career goals this week with the acquisition of a new printer. For a while now I’ve been concerned that we were overly reliant on the little HP1010 which only cost about £25.00 but chugs along like a good ‘un. The point is, though, that Debbie needs something that she knows she can rely on, because of all the damn resources she has to print out (which, actually, I think the college should print/copy for her, by rights, but hey ho) so we have been forced to spring a few readies and have acquired a (surprisingly cheap and surprisingly easy to install) Epson wireless ink jet printer.

There was one point where the touch-screen claimed, during the installation, that it would “temporaly” disable the internet connection, but then I suppose that’s near enough, if you’re Korean. I did have to stop Debbie putting a red ring round it though. So, anyway, we have another wireless device now humming away in our little electronic nest, and I am convinced that, what with the printer, the mobile phones, the cordless land line, and the wi-fi network, you could probably hold up an uncooked Cornish pasty in the air anywhere in our house and watch it transform before your very eyes into a piping hot, tasty and nutritious snack. Just like my brain.

If there’s one thing English teachers really do like doing, it’s correcting things in red ink. Debbie actually uses green, because she thinks red is a tad judgemental, but Suzy Howlett, who teaches English as a foreign language, had no such compunction when a leaflet from two UKIP candidates standing for the council in Frome landed on her doorstep. It was littered with typos and grammatical errors (UKIP wants to regain control of our “boarders”, for instance) and her picture of it after she’d finished giving it the 0/10 must-try-harder treatment went viral this week on social media.  Not that UKIP care. Nigel Farage was too busy losing it and accusing the audience of being biased when they started giving him the Bronx Cheer during the “leaders’ debate” and meanwhile, food write and anti-austerity campaigner Jack Monroe was driven from Twitter by a series of hate messages allegedly emanating from the account of Alex Wood, a former UKIP candidate, including the charming “Your sick form of Lesbianism and militant queerism is destroying this country. Get out and give us Britain back! #VoteUKIP.” The messages also suggested she should be sterilised.

It seems, however, that the account may have been “hacked”, at least according to Mr Wood, who disclaims the messages, in much the same way as UKIP have disclaimed him. “My account must have been hacked,” is of course high on the list of excuses we have all heard before. It was what that US politician said when it turned out he had been tweeting pictures of his dick cheney. It’s right up there along with “the cheque is in the post”, “I was only keeping the images on my hard drive for research purposes”, “I have absolutely no idea who those knickers in the car belong to”, “the dog ate my homework”, and “the money was only resting in my bank account”. But we’ll see.  It was only three or so years ago, we should remember, that a UKIP candidate in the Kent County Council elections, Geoffrey Clark, said that Down’s Syndrome foetuses should be compulsorily aborted, lest they become a drain on the NHS.  It’s now got to the stage where this sort of thing happens so often that you could be forgiven for thinking that, if you picked up Britain and gave it a good shaking, everything loose or unhinged would end up in UKIP. Perhaps that’s what happened.

Being driven off Twitter is a concept I am not entirely comfortable with, however. It is, after all, only a glorified internet message board and if you do go, you might as well admit they’ve won. I argued as much, and was told “If you physically socialised with someone who was constantly nasty to you, would you continue to socialise with them?” to which I replied that if  I physically socialised with someone who was constantly nasty, I would excommunicate them fairly swiftly and they'd find it a long road back to getting on my Christmas card list again, but it wouldn't stop me going to the pub altogether.

I've been abused on Twitter (though as yet, no one has threatened my life or suggested I be sterilised, but no doubt it will come) but I wouldn't let my use of the internet be circumscribed by some furtive little anorak-wearing creature in a bed sit in Crouch End who has never had a girlfriend and has never grown the balls to say the stuff in public that he quite happily fills acres of Twitter with. Success or failure in real life is not to be confused with success or failure on Twitter.

Twitter is kept going by the likes of Katie Hopkins, who is being driven to ever-greater excesses in her desperate effort to avoid the obscurity which inevitably awaits her, a nemesis which could be hastened if by some miracle Miliband wins the election, since she has, let us not forget, vowed to quit these shores if Labour gets in.

This week, her theme was once more immigration and her target in particular the continuing stream of desperate refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean to get to southern Italy, either under their own steam or, increasingly, in the hands of organised traffickers who have little or no regard for the safety of their human cargo.  Obviously these people are trying to get into the EU, and who can blame them. Whatever you think about picking fruit in Italy for starvation wages and in conditions that Steinbeck would have recognised, it’s a paradise if you come from some Godforsaken hole in the sub-Saharan desert, or a village made of breeze blocks in the Syrian desert that’s been bombed by ISIS and the RAF in the same day.

Unfortunately, since the rules of search and rescue in the Med were changed recently, throwing the responsibility on to a new body, more of the boat people are dying than ever before. This doesn’t stop Katie Hopkins though.  Never mind that in some cases they are fleeing a war zone, they are, in her world “cockroaches”. Writing in The Sun (where else?) she refers to migrants in Calais trying to enter the UK as “a plague of feral humans”, adding “we don’t need Save The Children encouraging migrants to make the journey, what we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country”. [The fact that “their own country” is probably landlocked is lost on Ms Hopkins.]

This is beyond parody, in fact, it’s so far past Barking and off the bus route that it’s tantamount to incitement to racial hatred, and definitely worthy of a complaint to whatever the Press Complaints Commission is called this week.  Especially as she is then seeking to conflate it with the idea, once again incorrect as always, that asylum seekers get benefits, when she says:

“Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

Asylum seekers don’t get benefits, and illegal immigrants can’t claim benefits either because they’re here, er, illegally.

I really hope two things for Katie Hopkins. Firstly I hope that, if she is by some miracle forced to carry out her promise and leave the UK in the event of a Labour victory, that whichever port she tries to make landfall in, the authorities send out a “gunship” to blow her out of the bloody water.  As I am writing this, news is coming in of yet another migrant boat tragedy off Lampedusa, with perhaps as many as 700 people drowned, some of them children. My second wish for Katie Hopkins is that wherever she ends up, and be her life long or short, the dying screams of those children, and their dead, drowned ghosts, follow her to the end of her days.

It would be more bearable if Katie Hopkins was the only compassionless vacuous idiot making stupid suggestions that undermine the fabric of a civilized society, but she is, sadly, by no means alone. Also this week, Lord Bichard, a cross-bench peer previously only known for chairing the Soham murder enquiry, came out with the idea that pensioners should be forced to work for their pension (although they have, in fact, done precisely that, all their lives). Speaking to a committee of MPs, he said:

 “Older people who are not very old could be making a very useful contribution to civil society if they were given some incentive or recognition for doing so. We’re prepared to say to people if you’re not looking for work, you don’t get a benefit. If you’re old and you’re not contributing in some way, maybe there should be some penalty attached to that. These debates never seem to take place. Are we using all the incentives at our disposal to encourage older people not just to be a negative burden on the state but actually be a positive part of society?”

Yes, starting with the old fogeys in the House of Lords.  Do something to earn your bloody expenses, you leech and scrounger. Get out there and do a litter pick, or run a soup kitchen or a food bank. The thing is, Lord Bichard, if you’re not looking for work, you’re not worth your expenses, so we should donate them to Shelter.  In fact, Lord Bichard, why stop at death? When the pensioners you have worked into the ground finally succumb, their ashes will keep the egg-timers of Britain going for a generation!

It is, sadly, becoming more and more difficult to ignore the election, even though I’ve now taken routinely to turning over to The Simpsons when the BBC Six O’Clock news comes on, on the grounds that it is funnier and probably more realistic than whatever’s happened here during the day. Give me Homer Simpson over John Simpson any day. Our local Tory candidate, Jason McCartney, sent out an election leaflet which consists of 75% unfounded assertions 23% tissue of untruths, and 7% dry matter including chip fat and gunge. I have started an open letter of rebuttal, which is currently on its fourth page. I did briefly consider turning over the entirety of this week’s blog to it, so you have had a lucky escape there. I’ll post it on my other, specifically political blog, if I can ever remember the login details, and put a link here or on Facebook.  Much as I would like to say that I am looking forward to the choice available at this election, and to exercising my democratic right to vote and chuck out the government, in fact the choice at the next election is between the Tories and the other Tories, and voting for Miliband instead of Cameron is merely voting for the lesser of two weevils.

Mention of weevils and worms reminds me that one of my correspondents asked me this week if we still see Brenda the Badger, and the answer is that, sadly for the last year or so, we haven’t seen her, and I can only assume that she is getting her earthworms from someone else’s garden these days. Either that, or she chooses to be nocturnal only on the nights when I choose to go to bed.  So I felt slightly envious of 79 year old retired charity worker Terry Cooper, who found himself widely reported in the press this week after coming face to face with a giant super-badger, the size of a small pig, and its two cubs, in his garden. Mr Cooper claimed that it had teeth “as long as a lemonade bottle is wide”, which was an adventurous and unusual simile, though it might have attracted the red pen of a certain English teacher.  Mr Cooper and his dog, a small Jack Russell, turned tail and fled indoors.  Given that badgers are typically shy, nocturnal creatures, one wonders what exactly it was that Mr Cooper saw, and whether it was chemically-assisted in any way. The sun was over the yard-arm, certainly, and there are other common black-and-white objects in the English landscape, several pints of Guinness for instance, but maybe we should give him he benefit of the doubt, and assume that there really is a breed of super-badger, come to seek revenge for the culls. I sort of hope so.

While I have been writing these words, it occurred to me that a disproportionate amount of these stories emanate from the south-west of England, as does the sorry tale of  Nick Allen, a musician who uses a wheelchair, who has spent £160,000 on converting a barn into a wheelchair-friendly recording studio, only to be told by Wiltshire County Council that unless it is demolished by September 10, he will be prosecuted for failing to disclose a change of use and thus contravening planning law.  True, Mr Allen may have made some elementary mistakes with his paperwork, but given the paucity generally of such amenities for “the disabled”, you would think that the council might, in these circumstances, be prepared to employ common sense and act in the spirit, rather than the letter of the law. 

Like the council in Hull which is actively preventing volunteers from feeding the homeless near Holy Trinity, it behoves these bone-headed burghers to remember who put then there, and why. It’s not like Mr Allen built a housing estate in his back garden without telling anyone, and I am sure that there are many, many times all over the UK when planning disputes are settled amicably in the pub car park by the developer giving the planning officer a jiffy bag full of tenners, so unless Wiltshire county council can show they have always, in all their other decisions, upheld the law, the letter of the law, and nothing but the law, for ever and ever amen, then I think they should cut Mr Allen some slack in this case. As do all the other people who have signed the petition supporting him.
So, that was the week that was, and somehow we have arrived at The Feast of St Alphege of Canterbury.  St Alphege is, amongst other things, the patron saint of Greenwich, Solihull, and kidnap victims. Well, someone has to be, I suppose.  Supposedly born in Weston, near Bath, in 953AD, he later entered the monastery at Deerhurst, but then eventually gave that up as well, becoming a hermit, back at Bath once more. From that occupation he then entered the monastery at Bath, eventually becoming its abbot.

His next significant career break cam when, at the age of only thirty (although that was old, in those days) he was elected Bishop of Winchester, on October 19th 984AD. As bishop, he promoted the cult of St Swithun, and built a mighty organ in the cathedral that could be heard from over a mile away and which required 24 men to operate it. Shades of Reginald Dixon.  It would be nice to think of St Alphege rising up from the undercroft, belting out Oh I do like to be beside the seaside.
It is also said that, during his episcopate, so great was his generosity to the poor that beggars were nowhere to be found in the diocese. We could do with a few like him today.

This was of course the time when England was being plagued by constant attacks from the Danes, who were actively engaged in raiding and pillaging in those years, although subsequently they settled down in their own country and over the years, gave the world Sandi Toksvig, Peter Schmeichel, bacon, and dismembering giraffes.  Following a Viking raid in 994AD, a peace treaty was signed with one Olaf Tryggvason which entailed him receiving Danegelf and converting to Christianity, and it is thought he was confirmed by St Alphege.

In 1006, Alphege took another step up the clerical ladder when he succeeded Aelfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, and brought with him to his new post a souvenir of his previous job, in the form of the head of St Swithun, presumably to use as a novelty paperweight or something.  Unfortunately, though, those pesky Danes just wouldn’t go away, and Alphege’s ministry and reforms were interrupted yet again when the Danes staged another raid and this time laid siege to Canterbury, from the 8th - 29th September, 1011.  It didn’t end well for the home team.  Unfortunately, the city was betrayed and Alphege was taken prisoner and held for seven months, along with Godwine, Bishop of Rochester, Leofrun, the Abbess of St Mildrith’s, and Aelfweard, the King’s Reeve.  To round off a good day for the visitors, the Danes then plundered and burned Canterbury Cathedral.

Alphege refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his release, and eventually the patience of his Danish captors snapped, as related in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

... the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their "hustings" on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God's kingdom.

Sudden death at the hustings has of course stayed with us until modern times, just ask Michael Portillo, but in this case there was to be no second career on BBC Four for Alphege, who was taken back and buried in the precursor to St Paul’s Cathedral.  A contemporary account not featured in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates how one of the Danes, Thorkell the Tall, was so shocked by the brutality of what he saw taking place that he offered all his wealth and possessions, apart from his ship, if his fellow Danes would relent and spare the saint. Sadly, his appeal went unheeded, and it is said that after the event, he switched sides and fought with Aethelred the Unready against his former comrades. What Wilbert White-Ear thought is also unrecorded.

In 1023, Cnut himself had Alphege’s relics moved back to Canterbury, and in 1078 he was canonised, by Pope Gregory VII. Apart from being dead, things were looking up. After the Norman Conquest, Lanfranc, the Archbishop chosen by William I, had a massive clear-out of saints and only Alphege and St Augustine remained on the calendar at Canterbury, proof even then that he was held in regard. His shrine was rebuilt, and after the fire at Canterbury in 1174, he was moved to a new shrine near to the high altar.  It is said that St Thomas a Becket dedicated his spiritual life to St Alphege, shortly before he himself was martyred, near to the Alphege tomb.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply to the story of St Alphege. The sources are fragmentary and unreliable, written sometimes long after the events which they purport to describe, and often embroidered with additional material that can also be found in other lives, of other saints, taken from some sort of standard back-story archive that now seems to have been lost.  What it does bring home, though, is of a time when the peaceful, orderly society of England was under attack, when the division between rich and poor was immense, and when life was brutal and often short and violent, and ordinary people struggled to avoid disease and misfortune, and feed themselves, while the rich were cushioned by a layer of finery and gold. So different to today. Oh, hang on…

Well, that was St Alphege, and I guess the truly Christian part to his story was his submission to his fate and his refusal to be ransomed, which has echoes of Christ himself and the crucifixion. Not that I have ever truly understood the rationale for that, either, as readings of this blog in recent weeks will tell.  The more I think about it these days, the more I am coming to the conclusion that my faith, whatever it once was, is now more or less in tatters.  This afternoon, Deb did some tidying up on the decking, by way of down-time before starting on her prep for tomorrow’s classes, and took down the last remaining remnants of the prayer-flags, the ones the squirrels left behind.  Now, the only one left flying is the one the dropped and abandoned, stuck on a branch half way up one of John’s trees. It’s still there, miraculously, despite all the rain and gales of this late, cold spring.

Sometimes, I think my relationship with what some would call my creator has become a little like those prayer flags.  It started out as a row of bunting, fluttering and colourful in the summer breeze, and then one by one, the rain came and the wind howled and the frost nipped, and parts of my faith were stolen away from me and never returned, and now I’m left with two sorry, dirty flags and another scrap of cloth half way up an unreachable tree.

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing
And louder sing, for every tatter in the mortal dress

said W B Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium. And how right he was.

I seem to be saying this with increasing regularity these days, but I have to say, I am not looking forward to next week. In fact, looking back (see what I did, there) it is difficult to remember when I last looked forward to anything, apart from a general longing in winter for it to be spring.  Plus, this last week has been underscored by a troubling and annoying new development - back pain. Not constant, not that painful, to be honest, but enough to give me a twinge now and again and remind me that it’s there, underneath everything else, like a sinister obbligato underlying the whole score.  I’m hoping it’ll cure itself. Obviously, if it carries on, I’ll have to have it looked at. I don’t remember doing anything that specifically crocked my back, but then backs, like noses on some people, are notoriously easy to put out of joint.  To be honest, it’s the last thing I need right now, as I already feel ill, old and crabby, without adding that to the mix.  And of course, Deb is back at her teaching next week, with all of the early starts which that implies.

Then there’s the insurance claim, which is rapidly approaching the proportions of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House.  One thing is looking increasingly clear, though: whoever insures our camper next year, it won’t be Adrian Flux.  Flux off, I think the expression is.  These people, they sit there, taking your money year after year, and the premiums go up, even though you have never made a claim, and then the one time you need them, they rat on you.  As Woody Guthrie put it:

As through this world you wander, you meet some funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun, others with a fountain pen.

At times like this, I can usually recover some of my savoir-faire by counting my blessings, and it is true, I do have blessings, and I do try and cherish every moment, even emptying the dust-bag on the Hoover, because you never know the minute or the hour.  But I have to face the fact, and accept it, that I’m a long way from where I wanted to be, and some days I’m going backwards. I haven’t exactly given up praying, although these days if I am honest I rather think Big G has put me on hold.

I do have blessings though, and I should remember that.  God or no God, blessings are the thing that drags me out of bed in a morning and makes me get on, even though some blessings are chores, and vice versa.  I have a cat that needs feeding, I have a dog that will beg and give paw for dog-treats.  I won’t have to water the Ceanothus tonight, because it’s started raining. Still, if it’s at all possible, just the odd day next week when nothing blows up, catches fire, crashes or dies would be good, right now. A soft day, thank God.

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