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

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Sunday, 14 June 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of St Nennus

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. There is only a week of summer left, and of course, we haven’t actually had a summer – not in the sense I would recognise, of a period of at least a week, preferably two, where the weather is sustained and steady, hot enough for us to have the conservatory door open all day, let the stove go out, and for Granny to come in from the garden fanning herself and saying how mafting it is.

I must confess to feeling a bit cheated by this succession of dull days, with occasional rain – true, it saves me having to water the tubs and troughs, and despite it all, one of the Ceanothus bushes is putting forth bright blue flowers, but nevertheless I want a real summer, one like T H White describes in The Once and Future King:

It was July, and real July weather, such they had in Old England. Everybody went bright brown, like Red Indians, with startling teeth and flashing eyes. The dogs moved about with their tongues hanging out, or lay panting in bits of shade, while the farm horses sweated through their coats and flicked their tails and tried to kick the horse-flies off their bellies with great hind hoofs. In the pasture field, the cows were on the gad, and could be seen galloping around with their tails in the air.

The unseasonably dull weather has meant that Matilda has been making use of her new cat-blanket from her Auntie Maisie. This is a new soft yellowy-cream one, and she likes nothing better than to jump up on to it when it’s spread out on the settee, and give it a thorough kneading before curling round on it and hiding her face under her back leg (the cat, not Maisie).

The squirrels grow more and more blasé and totally unfazed by the presence of the cat. If it carries on like this the inevitable result is that there will be a squirrel evolutionary tragedy. The other day, I happened to look up and there was Matilda just inside the conservatory door, and outside on the decking not one but three squirrels all sitting on their hind legs, in a line, with their paws holding sunflower seeds up to their mouths, looking for all the world like the Andrews Sisters.

Misty, however, has decided to take up living dangerously. No sooner had I finished writing last week’s Epiblog when my mobile phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and answered it. It was Debbie.

“Your stupid dog has run off again.”

What had happened was that one of the paths they had been on, heading up towards Blackmoorfoot Reservoir, turned out to be within earshot of a local cricket field. Misty has heard the iconic sound of the British “summer”, the clack of leather on willow, and in her crinkly little brain, had identified it as the sound of a firework, and taken off. Once a collie dog decides to run, that’s it. Unless you’re Usain Bolt, another collie dog, or you have a quad bike to hand, forget it. Muttkins may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but she’s certainly the fastest over the measured mile.

Fortunately, while Debbie and I were discussing what best to do, as Debbie didn’t have an unlimited amount of time to stay up there searching, because she had a stack of college marking and prep to do, a woman turned up in Debbie’s eyeline, waving at her.  She told me to hang up and she would ring me back, and when she did, five minutes later, it was with the news that this woman, who had also been walking her own dogs, had seem Misty come barrelling up the path towards her and had managed to secure her.  Her first words to Debbie were “Have you lost a border collie?”

So, that was that. Muttkins went straight back on the lead, and walked home in disgrace, while I silently gave thanks that once more, a kind providence had rescued her. But now we have to add cricket to the long list of the many things she is frightened of.

On Monday morning, in a development of which Flanders and Swann would no doubt have approved, the gas man came to call. It was a pre-arranged visit, as he had come to do the annual service on the boilers, without which their guarantee is invalid, and therefore we are obliged to have them “seen to” each year on the anniversary of their installation. That part of the operation went very well, and was soon concluded, but unfortunately, I then happened to mention that, when Debbie was using the shower at the same time as the cooker was on, the boiler in this kitchen made a deep, rather troubling “hoo, hoo, hoo” sound, redolent of a 14 stone wood pigeon, and once, when it had been doing this, all the gas rings had gone out.

“Ah, it sounds like you have got low gas pressure! I’ll check it out.”

Sure enough, no sooner had he got the lid off the gas meter box outside than he was back to tell me that the pressure was only something like 12% of what it should be.  And he couldn’t fix it because the meter, and – more likely – the pipe where the blockage, whatever it was – resided, belonged to British Gas.  In a twinkle, he had phoned their emergency number, and identified himself by his Gas Safe number (a bit like being a member of the Secret Seven or the Knights Templar or something) and they were on their way.

“What happens now?” I asked.
“They have to attend within two hours. Don’t worry, I’ll stay here till they arrive.”

So I had the company of John the plumber for considerably longer than I had anticipated. When they eventually came, it turned out that the bloke who was tasked with it had been John the plumber’s apprentice when he himself used to work for British Gas, so soon they were gassing about old times (see what I did, there?). Anyway, it turned out that they would have to disconnect the gas, which they duly did, and I put a kettle of water to boil on top of the stove.

“I’ve had to call out the cavalry,” Gary the apprentice told me, “once they’ve sorted you, they’ll tell me and I’ll come back and put you on again.” And with that he was gone,. And John the plumber with him.  So I sat there reflecting on how this had initially seemed quite a good, ordinary day, the sort of day during which much might be achieved, and now it was unravelling and turning to poo before my very eyes.

Eventually, another, larger, British Gas van arrived, with a crew of two, and once I’d shown them where the gas meter was and told them to knock if they needed anything, I left them to it. The kettle was vaguely tepid. I could have murdered a cup of tea.  As I settled down to work again, I heard the sound of pneumatic drills starting up outside. Whatever the cause of the “blockage” it was taking some shifting. I fished out my mobile and called Debbie to warn her not to run over any gas men as she pulled back into the drive, as it would create lots of paperwork and delay the gas being reconnected.

Eventually, Debbie arrived back from college and delivered a short peroration on how unacceptable it was not to be able to have a vegan bacon wrap for breakfast, owing to lack of gas, see above, and then fell asleep, even as the pneumatic drills lulled her on the way to dreamland.

By teatime, the cavalry had done their stuff. They quizzed Debbie about whether we had had any building work or new pipes laid, although to be honest they could have just taken a look around and answered their own question. Our house looks like it hasn’t had any building work since it was built in 1936, and it probably hasn’t. Anyway, there had been a leak at the point where the pipe to our house left the main outside in the road. They had fixed it, and had notified Gary the apprentice to come and re-connect the gas meter. Within three hours.

Finally, at 7pm, yet another British Gas van pulled up, bearing not Gary the apprentice but yet another British Gas man whom I had never seen before, who not only re-connected the gas meter, but also, very professionally, put back the planter on top of the gas meter box with the Comfrey and the Lemon Catnip growing in it. So ended Monday, a day when I felt I had made the personal acquaintance of most of the staff of a major public utility. I suppose it is safer now the low pressure is fixed, but I couldn’t help but wish I’d kept my big mouth shut.

It’s very difficult to keep your mouth shut when you hear of such criminal stupidity as the Government selling off yet more of the family silver, in the form of our 80% stake in RBS. When we bailed them out, we apparently paid £5.00 per share, but we will be lucky to get £3.61 a share now, apparently.  George Osborne, axeman and woodcutter-in-chief, said that

 "It's the right thing to do for British businesses and British taxpayers. Yes, we may get a lower price than that was paid for it - but we will get the best price possible.”

Bear in mind, this man is in charge of the economy. Scary, isn’t it? The sale will realise probably £13bn, so you would think, wouldn’t you, that this could be used to prevent the necessity of cutting the £12bn from the benefits bill which the Tories have already promised us. You would think so, but no.  And they are already eyeing child benefit, which they said before the election would be safe.

Another cruel and doctrinaire cut is the abolition of the Independent Living Fund, which previously allowed the severely ill and disabled to live some sort of independent life outside of an institution.  The government would claim, of course, that they are not cutting it – the money remains the same, more of less, but the responsibility for it has been transferred from central to local government.  The point to note, however, is that currently the fund is ring-fenced, but the sneaky bastards have removed this safeguard then transferring the responsibility for it to local authorities.  So there is nothing to stop the council using the money to fill in potholes if we are ever unfortunate enough to get another Tour de France, of for Councillors’ expenses, or indeed just using it for general funds as the rate support grant is cut every year by Eric Pickles, especially in an act of spite against Labour-administered areas.

If you would like to read an upsetting account of how this will affect a particular victim, you could do a lot worse than read the recent article by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian of June 8th, about Paula Peters and how she will be hit by these changes.  The article is too long to quote in full, but it does serve to point out very clearly the hypocrisy of David Cameron, attempting to use the memory of his disabled son to make out that he is some sort of champion of the disabled, while all the time presiding over this meanness and brutality.  Chakrabortty sums up the last five years in one trenchant paragraph:

In 2010 Cameron and Osborne trained their sights on people like Paula, thanks to a chain of three choices. First, they chose to try to wipe out the deficit, rather than spur growth. Second, they chose to do this not by raising taxes, but almost solely by spending cuts. Finally, ministers decided they had to slash welfare, but couldn’t take money off pensioners – all that inevitably meant hacking back support for children, or people with disabilities.

But of course, sympathy for the likes of Paula Peters is in short supply, in this Britain that the Blue Blight Brigade has created, this every-man-for-himself, compassion-free zone, where it’s OK to step over your neighbour as they lie bleeding in the gutter, in fact, shouldn’t they be at work? It’s totally unacceptable to hard working families to have people lying there bleeding with their curtains drawn, there should be a phone number you can ring to shop them to the authorities – oh, hang on, there is.

In fact, sympathy in general is in short supply. Witness the reaction, on social media and elsewhere, to the story of the Birdi family. They gained some sort of dubious fame by being one of the first, if not the first, families to be evicted as a result of the Benefits Cap.

When they were being evicted, their seven year old daughter asked a very pertinent question: “Where will we live?” The Birdis are now reliant on food banks to survive.  Sonny and Heidi Birdi have seven children aged between two and 11, and used to enjoy a household income of £60,000 pa. Not from benefits, this was when he used to have a lucrative job which gave them a lifestyle including holidays abroad, trips to Disneyland and designer shopping. In 2012, Sonny underwent several kidney operations followed by a heart attack and was left with no option but to resign.

His wife said:

“It really riles me when people say ‘you shouldn’t have that many children if you can’t afford them’. When we had our kids we were earning around £60,000 a year, were both working and didn’t rely on benefits. We were surviving fine but because of the Benefits Cap we are now unable to pay the rent.”

The family how live in a temporary three bedroom home provided by the council. Both the Birdis paid tax and national insurance throughout their career.  The Benefits Cap ultimately cause their undoing because their rent on their previous home of £795 pcm, became unaffordable.

There are those who say that the Birdis should have saved during the good times, set aside something just in case, and so on. Maybe they should – but they were living the Thatcherite dream of having everything here and now with no thought of tomorrow, and those people who are now queuing up to throw stones at them from the moral high ground would a) probably have done exactly the same thing and b) support a party which has this sort of conspicuous consumption as its ethos – after all, even an economic duffer like George Osborne would have no trouble in balancing the books if everyone in the country was spending money like it was water and there was no prospect of a drought. You can’t have it both ways.

But of course the Birdis are a ready made example for the yellow press of what we have come to think of as “the undeserving poor”, and as such are to be pilloried.  We should never forget, also, that Labour voted in favour of the Benefits Cap, to their eternal shame.  The fact is that nobody is safe from the vicissitudes of fortune, as I know only too well.  Before 2010, I was the director of two companies, and owner of a house that was comfortably appreciating in value, then bang! one day the credit crunch, and meanwhile, I end up in hospital for six months, coming out in a wheelchair having been made redundant in my absence and now the proud possessor of a life-limiting condition.  And no, I didn’t salt away as much as perhaps I should have done, and now I live from hand to mouth on Disability Living Allowance, which will no doubt eventually be targeted by the Blue Blight.

Talking of Labour, I do appear to still be a member of the local branch, although not of the Facebook Group of the local branch, which is obviously some sort of inner sanctum, holy of holies, where they are busy plotting David Cameron’s downfall in secret. If only.  Still, as someone who apparently does have a vote in the election, I have now been courted by email by three of the prospective candidates, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, and have replied to all three ticking them off and giving them a proverbial flea in the ear for not being nearly as “oppositional” as they should be.

So, we came to a rather dull Sunday, and the feast of St Nennus. Nennus was an Irish saint, who succeeded St Enda to the two monasteries on the Isle of Arran and the Isle of Bute, thus continuing and perpetuating the Arran/Aran confusion that you see more or less everywhere. Arran is a small island in the Firth of Clyde, next to the Isle of Bute. In outline, it looks almost exactly like David Cameron eating a peanut.  Aran is the island off the west coast of Ireland where they knit Aran sweaters, listen to plays by J M Synge, and revel in being the prototype for Craggy Island in Father Ted.

Now, it would appear that, in this case, we are talking Father Ted and not Lamlash Bay, because the original confusion seems to have been based on an entry in Butler’s Lives of The Saints, which says of St Nennus:

HE was of the family of the O’Birns. In 654 he succeeded St. Endeus upon his demise in the government of the great monastery of the isles of Arran, which formerly were two, before the name of Bute was given to one of them. The festival of St. Nenus has been always kept with great solemnity in many parts of Ireland.

I think Butler has got his string bag inside out, is confusing Arran with Aran, adding a spurious “r”, and dragging the Isle of Bute into it for no reason. There are extensive ruins of a monastery on the Aran isles, one formerly associated with St Enda, and none at all on Arran off Scotland.  So I’m sticking out for Craggy Island. No doubt if I’m wrong, several people will write and tell me.

I am almost glad that nothing is known about St Nennus, as I don’t feel in the least bit spiritual today. I have to face the unpalatable conclusion that my own faith, such as it ever was, seems to be steadily eroding in the face of the unrelenting nastiness and random cruelty of the world. I still believe most of what I always believed, but – most days at any rate – I no longer feel it. I still pray, although admittedly these days only in moments of extremis, such as when Misty went missing, but I am not sure what I am saying, or who, if anyone, is listening.  Dull days do me no good.  All work and no pray makes Steve a dull boy.

I don’t want to stop writing this blog, because apart from anything else, the mental discipline of sitting down to produce it on a Sunday afternoon is still, I think, good for me – if not for you, dear reader.  I also think that, who knows, something approaching faith may return, in due course. Who knows? A few sunny days in a row, news that a couple of missing cats have been found safe and well, Downing Street struck by lightning, any and all of these could put me in a much better mood.  My aubretias are due on Wednesday, having presumably been sent overland by Jerseyplants direct on a three-legged donkey led by a blind muleteer, so again, Wednesday promises to be a better day, provided it doesn’t pee down with rain.

So I go on, bumbling and Mickawbering my way through life. I know I should be following my own  advice, counting my blessings, and cherishing every moment, and that I have friends who are willing to help me out by driving half the length of the country to deliver some books, and friends willing to type up the drivellings I send them in the post, but right now I could, literally, just curl up and go back to sleep.  I guess I have to accept that it is not the sole purpose of Big G to put me in a good mood, that he has other fish to fry, and that if I don’t like it, I should listen to the thumping on the sky and just suck it up, buttercup.  I have to recognise again that, like the Shepherd of the Downs, I want no riches, or wealth from the crown.  Teach me to care, and not to care – teach me to sit still.

But, oh, wouldn’t it be nice if the rain stopped and the sun came out and England won a cricket match and the kettle boiled and there were cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and fresh scones for tea with jam and cream (jam on first) and a pot of steaming Assam tips, and the papers were full of pictures of people frying eggs on the pavement and skinny-dipping in the fountains of Trafagar Square, and headlines saying “Phew! What a Scorcher! Met Men Say There’s More To Come!” and all the doors and windows open to the garden, and the sound of leather on willow from across the meadows – actually, no, cancel that last bit, we don’t want the dog to run off again.

Oh well, we can dream, I guess.  If I was to pray for anything next week, on a personal basis, apart from the usual stuff about an end to war, death, famine and disease, and unlimited funds for donkey sanctuaries, it would be for less hassle. The less I am hassled, the more I can do. The more I can do, the more good I can do.  Who knows, that might actually be the road to getting rid of this feeling that the older I get, the better I was.

Until then, it’s time to bomb up the fire and watch the rain come down, the flag of Free Tibet in the garden hanging limply on its flagpole and the darkness under the trees already coalescing into something resembling the gloom of twilight, not officially due for a few hours yet.  I wish I had some better news, but at least we haven’t all perished in a massive gas explosion and then been sent a bill for the gas.

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