It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. Apart from a few minor “blips” in the form of April showers, spring continues to burgeon. There are many things to like about spring – in fact, May is my favourite month of the whole year – but spring cleaning is not one of them. Unfortunately, this week has seen an outbreak of this pestilential scourge, although I think we have got it under control now.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing the end result of spending half a day cleaning out the veg rack, it’s just the unutterable, mind-numbing tedium of having to actually do it. I try and get through it by reciting George Herbert, manically, on repeat:
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine
Who sweeps a room, as to thy laws
Makes that, and th’action fine
Usually, this works, but on days when the chores seem particularly pointless, more tedium than Te Deum, when I am scraping the residue of long dead vegetables off with a brillo pad, and I fall to thinking that in a hundred years’ time, I will be a long dead vegetable, and the veg rack and the brillo pad will both be landfill, it does sort of test your faith.
Still, as I am always fond of quoting, after enlightenment, the laundry, and into every life, a little rain must fall, it is necessary to suffer in order to be beautiful, yadda yadda et cetera, et cetera, as Yul Brynner would say if he were here right now. The spring cleaning bug started with Debbie, actually, one morning when I came through into the kitchen and found the conservatory door wide open, and Debbie out on the decking, hoovering it.
Though this be madness, yet there was method in’t, to quote the Bard, but even so it looked pretty bizarre, and I found myself wondering whether, with a suitable extension lead, she could hoover the garden. What she was actually doing, having first cleared off all the crap of the dead leaves and other winter detritus (and put them in a bin bag to mulch down, as requested by Monty Don) was hoovering up the bird seed which had been scattered by careless pigeons and squirrels, and I have to say that, as with any spring cleaning (see above) although enduring it was absolute hell, the end result was very pleasant.
Except for the squirrels. During her whirlwind blitz attack on the disorder of nature, Deb had managed to move the metal dish with the bird food in it up to one end of the decking, much nearer than usual to the spot where Matilda customarily flops out and sleeps on sunny days – a particular patch of sunlight where there is just room for her, between a plastic planter and a stone pig. So it was that, later that afternoon, Matilda was snoozing there, about nine inches from the dish, when a squirrel decided to sod it and take some food from the dish anyway. Matilda woke up, and for a few minutes, transfixed by the effrontery of the squirrel, while it was busy cramming as much as it could into its pouches, she did nothing but stare, saucer-eyed. Eventually, though, I could see that the old hunter-predator genes were going to kick in. Somewhere deep within the recesses of Matilda’s crinkly little walnut of a brain, the notion stirred that she should really be doing something about this situation. By the time I got nearer the door, she’d assumed that crouching position cats adopt where they wiggle their bum and lash their tail, and then pounce. I banged on the glass of the door and shouted, “Hey! Squirrel!” which sounds a bit feeble written down, but it was all I could think of on the spur of the moment. The squirrel legged it, with Matilda in close pursuit, but it sensibly decided to forsake the horizontal for the vertical and it was off up the tree like Fred Dibnah on fast forward.
Matilda may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but even she can work out sitting under a tree. However, her plan was based on the mistaken assumption that what goes up, must come down, a fundamental law of nature which doesn’t apply to squirrels. I watched it doing its high-wire trapeze act from tree top to tree top, until I lost it in the green haze of the fresh new leaves.
So, that was what passed for excitement in Matilda’s life this week. Misty and Zak have had a fairly pedestrian week, literally in the sense of yomping across the moors with Debbie, and, totting it all up, they must have done over fifty miles apiece. In fact, Debbie seems to have had an energy transplant from somewhere, because the spring cleaning was not confined to vaccing the decking, but also encompassed grovelling under the table where she keeps all her college work to retrieve some books that had slid off and fallen down the back.
“Say one for me while you’re down there,” I suggested, “but you should know that Mecca is that way!”
“I’m praying that somebody will put a Thin-wa on you.”
How different from the home life of our own dear Queen. Anyway, in terms of excitement, we have also had three visitors this week, two of whom were unexpected. The first is a small black, possibly female, cat that has been seen hanging around the garden on a more or less daily basis. My neighbour accosted me on Monday when I was outside doing a “spacewalk” down my wheelchair ramp to put the rubbish in the bin, to ask me if we’d got another cat. I told her no, not while Matilda lives and breathes, and we fell to discussing the potential feral, which it turns out that they’ve been feeding. Matilda has seen this errant puss a couple of times through the glass of the conservatory door when it’s wandered across our decking, and immediately started “doing her pieces” at it, through the door, so I fear the chances of our adding it to the strength on garrison here are limited. However, we can’t also ignore the possibility of having the garden teeming with feral kittens in a couple of months’ time, so I reluctantly rang the Cats’ Protection League and arranged to borrow a trap, which will be deployed next week. Of course, since then, I haven’t actually seen the bloody cat, so perhaps it is someone’s pet after all. Watch this space. Or this trap.
The other unexpected visitor, on Wednesday night at about 10.30PM, was Brenda the Badger. Well, I say it was Brenda – it could have been another badger, I suppose, but we were all too gobsmacked by her reappearance to grab a camera or a phone or anything and record it. I’ve watched eagerly ever since that night to see if she came back, but it looks like, once again, she’s had a better offer. The dry cat food I put out for either her, or the feral cat, or both, remains untouched. This, of course, is an additional complication with regard to the feral cat trap now: if we’re really unlucky, or lucky, depending how you view it, we could open up one morning to find the cat trap contains Brenda, Matilda, the feral cat, three squirrels and a postman. So, it will have to be delicately managed.
Actually, in an outbreak of badger-related serendipity, Debbie nearly totalled the camper, a badger, and herself, last night, when returning after giving her mum a lift home at 11PM. She was coming back from Berry Brow and a badger decided to womble across the road, right in front of her. At least it proves that the brakes, repaired under the insurance vandalism claim, do actually work, but it would have been ironic in a way even Alanis Morrisette would understand, to have crashed the camper the week the insurance finally paid up for the claim, while avoiding a badger, on her way home to see if Brenda had turned up to be fed. At least the insurance cheque on the doormat means that I can hang my battle-axe back up for the time being.
The other visitor (expected) was Owen, who made a lightning dash up from South Wales (as much as you can dash anywhere in a hired seven-and-a-half tonner) to help us move the stocks of printed books out of the old warehouse, and to their new home in Ammanford. Once again, this was totally above and beyond the call of duty, and there’s no real way of demonstrating my gratitude for this, but without his help we would have been stuffed. We’re so far in his debt, with our overdraft on the bank of his kindness and help, that it makes Northern Rock look like a piggy bank. I don’t really enjoy shuttling pallets of books around the country, and I’d much rather it wasn’t necessary, but I suppose it’s a bit like spring cleaning, absolute hell while it’s in progress, but it’ll look lovely when it’s finished. Eyes on the prize, Steve, eyes on the prize.
In her own way, Misty Muttkins is vaguely famous, with her Facebook page, “Misty Muttkins, the Borderline Collie”, but she would have to develop some hitherto unknown skills to be as notorious as Don the Sheepdog, who caused chaos this week on the M74 in Scotland when he somehow “assumed control” as the police put it, of a tractor that had been left parked on a slope, and managed to drive it through a hedge and across one carriageway of the motorway, before embedding it in the central reservation and gridlocking most of Dumfries and Galloway. When I first heard the story, I didn’t know what breed of dog he was, but it’s a slam-dunk, really, when you see a headline that says “Dog crashes tractor on motorway”, you know, you just know, that there is going to be a Border Collie behind it, and lo, so it proved.
It’s been such a busy week – it really has, even by my standards – that I haven’t really been paying attention to the news. It’s now become an automatic reaction into switch over to The Simpsons whenever the news comes on. The Tories’ secret weapon seems to be to try and frighten voters into thinking “Vote Labour, get Nicola Sturgeon” and if Miliband had any sense he’d be countering it with “Vote Tory, get Nigel Farage”, but he doesn’t, so that’s yet another wasted opportunity.
In any event, Scotland got a bum deal after the “no” vote in the referendum, with Cameron et al ratting on the desperate promises they made in the run up to the vote, so I hope that the SNP does do well in the elections, and sends a substantial block of MPs to Westminster to support a minority Miliband administration on an issue by issue basis. It can’t be any worse than five more years of soup kitchens, food banks and Jarrow marches, which is all the Junta have to offer (oh, and further dismantling of the NHS, almost forgot that because it’s not in their manifesto. Again.)
Personally, without wishing to go over old coals, I think that the version of “independence” that the Scots were asked to vote for last September was somewhere beyond la la land and keep right on till morning, and they had a lucky escape, considering they could have even now been trying to invent their own currency with the oil price tanking, but in some respects, what passes for the SNP’s heart is in what passes for the right place, and if they can rescue Miliband from the slough of his own ineptitude, and do some good in ridding Britain of the curse of “austerity”, so much the better. I did end up writing my open letter to our prospective Conservative candidate, but there has been, unsurprisingly, no reply. Perhaps they are waiting for the edited version from Grant Shapps. Or Contrib SX, if indeed they turn out to be two different people and not just manifestations of a pathological multiple personality disorder.
The disaster of the Mediterranean boat people rumbles on. At least the politicians are now talking about the problem. Shame it took the deaths of 800 people to get it to the top of the hassle pile. There is talk of Katie Hopkins being prosecuted for incitement to hatred, because of the article she wrote in The Sun comparing refugees to vermin and cockroaches. I really hope it happens, but I suspect the Murdoch empire had her copy checked before actually setting it up in type, to make sure it was just the legal side of the fine line between frothing and rabid. The media have also been excelling themselves over the Nepalese earthquake, in a sort of “thousands die but British backpackers and climbers saved” mode. I am always reminded of the Aberdeen local paper headline in April 1912: Titanic sinks on maiden voyage – Aberdeen man survives.
Anyway, after another week where it feels like I have spent some considerable time being shot-blasted in a tumble drier, we have arrived at the tranquil haven of Sunday, and a sunny and bright one, to boot, after yesterday’s temporary dip in the weather. I turned to the calendar of saints, but sadly, my eager anticipation was dashed.
Today I could have had the choice of St Cletus, who sounds vaguely obscene, St Anacletus, who is presumably the anti-cletus, St Paschasius Radbertus, crazy name, crazy guy, St Peter of Rates (now replaced by the Council Tax) or St Trudpert, but despite their inordinately silly names, none of them inspires me with any confidence.
So I am sticking with the Fourth Sunday After Easter, as it seems to be referred to in the Lectionary. The readings for today are apparently Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:11-24, and John 10:7-18.
Psalm 23 is of course the famous “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I wish I had thought of it when I was cleaning the veg rack and having gloomy premonitions about the Valley of Death. Acts 4 is all about the Sanhedrin questioning Peter and John for healing in the name of Jesus, and deciding to let them off with a caution. Peter’s retort is “This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.” 1 John 3: 11-24 is a homily on Cain and Abel and how we should not overlook our brethren in need: “Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” A question which could well be asked on the politicians who are standing at the next election on a platform of increased “austerity” and more food banks. I love the King James language about shutting up the bowels of compassion, as well. I will leave you to insert your own scatological jokes at this point.
The final reading, John 10: 7-18, is back on the sheep theme again.
Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
I must confess to being a fan of the pastoral imagery of the New Testament, especially as expressed in the rolling prose of the King James version, which remains my favourite, despite the occasional foray into bowels. I am also a great fan of sheep, which I probably get in my genes from my ancestor Thomas Thornhill, a shepherd, of Gainsborough, Lincs. One of the things I miss in my current predicament is the drive to the office on spring mornings, when I used to see the lambs in the fields, and watch the lapwings, either sitting on their nests or taking to the air in that peculiar side-slipping, flip-flopping defence flight that is meant to scare off intruders. The “hireling shepherd” referred to is where Holman Hunt got the title for his famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, where the shepherd lad is too busy chatting up the fair shepherdess to notice that the sheep are wandering off, unheeded.
There are those, of course, who would immediately point to the description of the followers of Jesus as a “flock” as being evidence of the blind, unquestioning acceptance of everything that is done in the name of “religion”. It is true that a strength which is unquestioningly over-applied is a weakness, and zeal is the obverse of faith, but there is also the concept of care and faith here. The sheep have faith that the shepherd will protect them and feed them, and come looking for them when they wander off. Even today, shepherds go up on the fells and dig their sheep out of snowdrifts every winter.
What am I to make of today’s readings? Well, apart from a hat, or possibly a brooch, I don’t know, because once again I’m in a quandary of indecision. Should I be even attempting to bother to square the circle of a loving shepherd of his sheep with a God who can let people drown in the Mediterranean or crush thousands in an earthquake in Nepal. Maybe, as Raymond Chandler said in that quotation from Playback, where he puts this speech into the mouth of the character Henry Clarendon IV:
"Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?"
No success where there is no possibility of failure. Or to put it another way, you have to undergo the chaos of spring cleaning, in this case spring cleaning the soul, before you can enjoy the end result. The shepherd would not be so proud of his flock if he hadn’t dug half of them out of snowdrifts or sat up all night when they were lambing. Maybe that’s what has happened to me in these recent weeks, I’ve just been spring cleaning my soul. I must admit, though, it would be good if Big G popped in now and again, in his cassock and army boots, and gave the floor a scrub, like Father Vincent McNabb used to do for his parishioners.
Today is also the twenty-third anniversary of the death of my father. Where have those years gone? Well, they were the years of my life, I guess. That, too, was a time when I seemed to be going through some of the same trials and tribulations in what passes for my spiritual life. If there is a kind and a loving God, loving shepherd of his sheep and all that stuff, why did my dad have to die from cancer? I’m typing that as if it was a rhetorical question, as if I was now going to give you the answer, hey presto, like a rabbit out of a hat, but in truth, 23 years later, I’m none the wiser, though the hurt has faded. About the only thing I have learned in that time, apart from how to grow old disgracefully, is the difference between knowledge and faith. Empirical science will never prove that God exists, though theoretical physics is having a good go in recent years. Knowledge and faith are two different things. I might as well read a technical manual to a dolphin. The technical manual explains things – it says if you do this, then this, then this will happen. But the dolphin isn’t interested, it wants to be off, skimming the sunlit waves in the bay. Knowledge derives from experience, faith derives from instinct. It’s taken me 23 years to learn that lesson, and there are still days when I forget it. Science believes that knowledge and experience trumps faith and instinct every time. But in fact, they are two completely different things. You might as well say that a cricket ball is better than an orange. Only if you want to play cricket.
So, what do we expect next week? Well, it’s going to be another of the same, I guess, as they used to say in auction catalogues. One thing I must do, urgently, is ring up the wheelchair repair service, as I can’t put it off any longer. The front left-hand “bogie” wheel tried to unscrew itself again during the week, and I had to do the trick with the allen key once again while sitting on the commode with the wheelchair tipped up in front of me. No bowels of compassion were opened, I can assure you. But the other, worse, potential problem is that the front right-hand bogie wheel now has a split in the solid rubber wheel itself, which can only get worse if left to its own devices. So, to avoid being tipped out like a sack of spuds, I will have to get on the case. Sadly, the wheelchair repairers come whenever they damn well feel like, and they are the one organisation where you can’t claim preferential treatment by saying “I’m in a wheelchair”, because all their clients are in the same boat, or at least in the same (metaphorical) wheelchair.
Other than that, more book moving, more book editing, more accounts, more postage, more spring cleaning, more of the same old dreary same old, in fact. Can I rely on big G, the supernatural shepherd, to keep the wolf from the door, and catch me when I fall? I don’t know, I really don’t. Anyway, those are tomorrow’s problems. Right now, while Misty is off with Deb, over hills and mountains high, I am off outside, to paint two plastic planters with white gloss, while the weather holds, and to see if Matilda’s still sprawled out on the decking in the sun, with her legs going off in all directions, looking like an abandoned set of bagpipes. And, if feral Beryl puts in an appearance, probably sounding like one, too.