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

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Epiblog for All Saints' Day

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. I almost typed “busty” which was probably a Freudian slip, but sadly the only tits in evidence have been the ones coming down to riffle through the bird seed once the squirrels have done their ruthlessly-efficient extraction of the sunflower seeds.  I was going to say that they get those sunflower seeds down them as if their lives depended on it, and then I realised that is exactly why they do it. They, too, must look ahead with foreboding to the cold, crabbed, privations of winter. I haven’t seen the old squirrel for a while, and I am keeping a special lookout for him today, although he hasn’t shown up so far. 

Matilda, meanwhile,  has largely forsaken the delights of bird watching and squirrel-chasing, not that she was ever much good at either of those pursuits, for sleeping in the big padded upholstered armchair about four feet from the stove.  I think she has appropriated this for her winter quarters, and I have to say, by and large, I do not blame her.

The dogs have had to make do with home-based walkies this week, as the long-threatened/promised camper trip to the Lakes didn’t materialise. There were several reasons for this, but mostly the weather. At the beginning of the week, Monday was a nice fine day, “a soft day at last” which meant that Deb had the choice of either wasting a fine day by spending it loading up the camper, or enjoying it and taking the dogs out. Needless to say, she chose the latter, as would I have done had I been in a position to walk the dogs at all.  Then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it turned to poo again, both here, and, more importantly, in the Lake District. We can just about hack loading up here in the rain, though it’s not pleasant, with the doors open, carrying stuff in and out and traipsing back with wet leaves stuck to your shoes, but to then drive nearly three hours in the dark, get there and find it’s coming down like stair rods and there is nothing to do but cook a meal and go to bed, and it’s still ten hours till first light, and the temperature is dropping like a stone… well, you get the picture.

Even worse is to rise in the chill nippy hours of dawn and make coffee while you struggle into your clothes, then (if you are Debbie) set off on a six hour trudge to the summit via a ridge walk in driving rain with added wind chill factor, only to get to the top and find all that you can see is the mist six feet in front of your face.  Believe me, you don’t know “driving rain” until you have spent some time in the Langdales, and not for nothing is Borrowdale the wettest place in Britain.  So, we stayed at home, instead, and spent the time on planning and catching up on long-overdue tasks. The dogs didn’t really mind, I don’t think: they love the beach at Walney, but to them, a walk is a walk is a walk, in the same way that a rose is a rose is a rose to Gertude Stein.  I’m not sure how Gert would react to 17 miles of bog-trotting over Dove Stones, Black Hill, or the Crowdon Horseshoe, but Misty and Zak love it, and love coming back wet and muddy and being dried off in front of the fire and then scoffing a huge bowl of “Fit as a Butcher’s dog” each, then falling asleep, dreaming, twitching and farting quietly.

Actually, that last bit could also be a description of our own lives as well, because another reason for not going away (though it was primarily the weather that decided us) is how tired we both feel.  This is a time of year for hibernating anyway, and when the clocks go back there is always a temptation in the afternoon to drowse away in front of the fire.  Deb really needed to put something back in the tank anyway, after a gruelling first half of the term, so for her, a long walk followed by a good meal and snoozing in front of the fire was probably the best medicine.  And the dreaming, twitching and farting, of course.

Typically, of course, on the very last day of half-term, the weather has once more turned benign and as I type this, looking out over the garden, more or less the last tree to still have any leaves on it, the willow over the pond, is an almost impossible golden, bright against a clear, deep blue sky. As the leaves move slightly in the wind, they catch the sun and flash like gold coins. I feel I am having my attention drawn to its transitory beauty, because in three more days those leaves will be off, on the ground with all the rest of them, and that will be it.

The unexpected “staycation” of not going off in the camper gave me some extra time I wasn’t anticipating at the outset, and I made sure to put it to good use. The last of this year’s books is now at press, barring three projects of my own that once more got pushed down the batting order, but I might be able to work on them in odd moments. Apart from that, it’s marketing marketing marketing all the way to Christmas! And if that thought doesn’t depress you, well, I don’t know what will.

My unexpected good fortune in landing a load more time to do the work I’d planned has sort of meant that I’ve been out of the loop as far as news of the outside world goes, but even I couldn’t fail to note that the old fossils in the House of Lords did indeed play a blinder on Monday and send the Junta’s plans for cuts to tax credits back to the proverbial drawing board, possibly for three years, apparently. Well, I have written many times before about what an anachronism the House of Lords is, and how it is desperately in need of reform (although not abolition – with vile reactionary governments railroading through things that were never in anyone’s election manifesto, there desperately needs to be a revising second chamber, preferably an impartial one, free of political influence) but on this occasion at least, the fudge, mudge and muddle, of which 99.99% of the dusty old unwritten British constitution is composed, worked for good and not evil.

We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too soon, though. Let’s not forget that the Lords is equally likely, for instance, to vote to re-introduce fox hunting, and that, as I outlined last week, Labour and Tory peers have been in cahoots, back in July, quietly discussing abandoning the key principles of the NHS and moving to an insurance-based system.  The defeat of tax credit cuts is just a lucky break – a bit like a burglar attempting to shoot you, but missing and killing his accomplice. We still need to be vigilant, and it still needs reforming.  One reform which is long overdue, and which could be relatively easily introduced, is that anyone who sits in the Lords should be domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. That would be a well deserved smack in the kisser for loathsome multi-millionaire Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who flew in specially from New York in order to vote in the debate (having not previously attended since 2011) in order to vote to make poor people poorer.  His personal wealth has been estimated at £650million, and he will no doubt have claimed £300 in expenses for attending the Lords that day. Draw your own conclusions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, like mine, they ended up with words such as “greedy” and “bastard”.

But, for the moment, the House of Lords served a purpose, so we can put a temporary hold on the tumbrels, and we have a few more months to sharpen the guillotine. Madame Defarge can stay by the fireside a little longer, and finish off that bedsock.  For now, the culottes can stay on.

It is just over five years ago since Jimmy Mubenga died on board a plane on which he was being deported, while being restrained by three guards from G4S. The three have subsequently stood trial, but the case collapsed for lack of evidence and they were acquitted.  I wrote back then about the case:

It won't bring him back, but perhaps 12 October every year could be remembered as Jimmy Mubenga day, until the UK Borders Agency is no more, disbanded for good, and Group 4 once more recognises that its true level of competence is in losing, or occasionally delivering, overnight parcels (or knocking on the door and leaving a card, even though you were in the house at the time). They were crap at that, but at least they didn't kill anyone.

Just over five years later, this week we had the revelation of the case of Alios Dvorzac, who died in detention in Harmondsworth, in handcuffs. He wasn’t an ISIS terrorist, or a failed asylum seeker, he was an 84 year old Slovenian with Alzheimer’s disease, who had been living in Canada but, in January 2013, he was trying to fly back to Slovenia to be reunited with his daughter. He got as far as Gatwick, where he fell foul of the UK Border Agency and was removed from the plane and taken in restraints to Harmondsworth detention centre.  While he was there he was shackled for up to five hours a day, and when he complained of chest pains, he was examined by a doctor, who tried (and failed) to find out why he was there in the first place.  She was told by her manager that the UKBA had told him, that it was none of their business.

The Canadians, meanwhile, were also asking questions, though not particularly energetically. Mr Dvorzac had become a naturalised Canadian during his time there, so they were under some sort of obligation to find out what was going on. They have refused to say in detail what representations were made, if any, out of respect to the “privacy” of Mr Dvorzac.  This is bizarre at best: “The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace,” wrote Marvell, and I can’t believe Mr Dvorzac is that bothered about privacy, wherever he is now, so much as justice.  I think the privacy that is really being protected here is the privacy of whoever cocked up, and the privacy of the numbskull bureaucrats who treated him like a ping-pong ball.  If it were not for the efforts of Paraic O’Brien, a reporter for Channel 4, Mr Dvorzac would have remained a footnote in a report of the HM Prisons Ombudsman.  But as it is, the story’s out. Open bag, exit cat.  And once more it casts a grim light on what is being done in our name.  As O’Brien said: 

despite being declared unfit for detention he ended up dying, in handcuffs, while still in detention two weeks later.”

You have to wonder how many more of them there are. We tend to only hear of the high profile cases, either those who are articulate and good at defending themselves, like Harley Miller, or those who are the focus of high-profile social media campaigns. But when Theresa May stands up at the Tory conference and talks about toughening up our immigration policy, this is what she means. This sort of thing, happening over and over and with increasing frequency.  But we are never encouraged to think of “immigrants”, “migrants” “asylum seekers” or “refugees” as people. In fact, the level of misunderstanding and ignorance on the subject in this country (deliberately fostered by people with an axe to grind, such as the Tories, UKIP, the BNP, and the EDL) that there’s too many of ‘em and they’re all over ‘ere taking our jobs.  This is the default position of the poppy thieves of Britain First, for instance and their army of bone-headed zombie “sharers” on Facebook. Actually, describing members of Britain First as zombies is a bit of a misnomer.  Zombies feed on brains, so any zombies at a Britain First rally would soon die of malnutrition. 

But the hardening of hearts (which I wrote about last week) over the refugee crisis continues, because this sort of propaganda, insidious as mildew, seeps in everywhere. So we see people sharing “memes” about looking after our “own” homeless ex-service personnel before we allow in even one refugee, as if it were a case of either/or. I have said this before, and I will say it again. There is enough money to do both, and the real question people should be asking is where are all the houses, schools, hospitals and libraries that could, and should, have been built with the money we have spent on prosecuting illegal wars over the last twelve years. To no avail, either, other than making life less safe here and abroad, and creating the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
I know by now many people will be bored rigid with me banging on about the refugee crisis, and I apologise. But I’ll keep on writing about it while it keeps on happening, so if you are sitting there thinking, “for God’s sake, Steve, change the bloody record”, feel free to scroll on by on the other side.  Meanwhile, the boats are still coming, and people – often children - are still drowning. 

And somehow, it’s Sunday again already, and not only Sunday, but All Saints' Day, to boot. The first of November. This time of year is also redolent with pagan/wiccan ceremonies as well, hallowe’en in all its modern fake-blood-wearing, pumpkin-toting, trick-or-treating gory glory being nothing more than Hollywood’s re-imagining of the old ceremony of Samhain, one of the four great sabbats of the witches year.  Don’t ask me what the other three are, I used to know, but I’ve forgotten. Like Homer Simpson, each time I learn something new, it pushes some of the old stuff out of my brain.  Anyway, the pagans and the Wiccans are all pretty well documented and I hope they have a good time and all that, get your kit off, light a fire, smear yourselves with woad, merry meet, and pass the mead. Just watch out for that odd bloke in the furry jodphurs who whiffs a bit of sulphur. (Only kidding Wiccans and pagans, I know that Satanism is an whole nother ball game, please don’t write in.) Paganism and Wicca were in fairly short supply last night, at least in our neck of the woods, probably because it was a bit nippy for jigging about in the nip, but there were lots of lobotomised idiots letting off fireworks well into the night and scaring the dog and cat. I don’t know if they count as a religion, but if they do, pace the Emperor Augustus, I would have to say, not Mormons, but morons.

As far as saints go, though, I have written a lot about individual saints, but not so much on the concept of sainthood. What is it that makes a saint? I’m not talking about the wonderfully loopy post-death career path beloved of the Catholic church, where first you become blessed, then you’re finally canonised after having had the interview by the cardinals, and you get to take your place on the right hand of God and get handed your specialisation: cats, wheely-bins, patron saint of whatever.  I mean what is it that drives these people while they are still alive, to become saints, given that not one of them had any pretensions to sainthood in their lives?

In ye olden days, becoming a saint was pretty easy. If there weren’t already saints in the family, or even if there were, all you had to do really was to have your head snicked off by marauding Vikings, then pick it up and walk off with it under your arm, and you were in. Next stop, a shrine, then a few miracles, and St Bob’s your uncle.  But that’s a world away from Therese of Lisieux, Maximilian Kolbe, Charles Borromeo, or Vincent de Paul.  One possible explanation, of course, would be that of the Neo-Platonists, who claim that everyone is born with a spark of the divine hidden inside them.  I have to say that, in some of the people I have come across in life, it has been bloody well hidden, but maybe that’s just me being harsh and judgemental.  Maybe what makes you a saint is that you are better than other people at searching for the hero inside yourself, if I may trespass on territory which has hitherto been the exclusive provenance of “M People” (a popular beat combo, M’Lud).

As I’ve written before, I can think of several people in real life (ie people who aren’t dead yet and who are setting a shining example without a clue of self-awareness about how “holy” they are) who deserve to be secular saints – the people who are organising the ad-hoc, box-and-cox relief for the hungry and cold refugees, because Governments refuse to do it; the people who rescue and re-home lost and injured animals; the people who take soup and food to the homeless, or run food banks.  But then “real” sainthood takes on a more “supernatural” dimension when you die – people pray to you, asking you to intercede with Big G to bring about a specific outcome, maybe even a miracle.  This carries with it weighty theological baggage, which some people refuse outright to carry.  Not least, differences in opinion about the effect and the rationale of prayer in the first place, though personally I think this is an area (the ability of the human psyche to cause change in its perceived reality by sheer effort of the will) where science will eventually catch up and prove that there really is something in it. 

Although I still pray, including generic prayers for all homeless people, refugees and lost animals, these days I am more like one of those radio-astronomers pumping pulses of dots and dashes into the dark spaces between stars, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, they will filter through a worm-hole to one of the other 27 dimensions where God lives, and be heard and understood. There is no evidence of this happening, though, at least not to date, but we live in hopes.  I couldn’t imagine myself praying to a deceased cat rescuer to intercede for the well-being of Tiddles, though of course, having said that, I’m immediately hoist with my own petard, because I did pray to St Gertrude of Nivelles (patron saint of cats, in case you wondered) on a daily basis, asking her to watch over Matilda while I was away on Arran. And of course, St Gertrude is, indeed, a deceased cat rescuer.  So maybe it’s me who needs to go outside, re-boot and come back in again.

Whether or not you believe a saint can help you also hangs on whether or not your belief-system even encompasses personal survival after death, and the idea of each saint having their own delineated area of responsibility. “Nah, this is cobblers and leatherwork. Cats is further dahn the corridor, mate”.  In some religions, you pray to your ancestors to intercede, and in others, Wicca for instance, you are asking the overwhelming power which they would probably refuse to call God, preferring instead “The Goddess” or “Mother Nature, to manifest itself in a particular form or aspect.  Intellectually, these are not dissimilar, when you look at them coldly and dispassionately and without any of the “Christianity Rules OK” superiority, to praying to a specific saint.

And also, while it’s possible to form a theory about the saints who actually did what would generally be acknowledged as “good works” having found the hero inside themselves and re-ignited their divine spark, their Platonist microchip, what about all those saints who just buggered off and lived in a cave somewhere, meditating and generally opting out? Do we need a separate theory of sainthood for them, or do we assume that they also found “the hero inside themselves”, just via a different route?

As usual, these days, I’m left with more questions than answers, but if the Neo-Platonist approach holds any water, it does bring with it the rather comforting assumption that, if we tried hard enough, and looked hard enough, we could all be saints in our own way, which, apart from anything else, would do wonders for the sales of Brasso, with all those halos to polish. But then, of course, if that is true, in turn, it leads me to the unexpected and difficult conclusion that the people I spend my time denigrating must also have a spark of divine goodness in them somewhere, and, if they acknowledge it, are worth of forgiveness.

So, having dragged myself full circle, and ended up once more mired in the boggage of forgiveness, I think I have argued myself to a standstill, yet again. It’s just as well, though, because there will soon be dogs, cats and people who all need warming, drying and feeding, not necessarily in that order, and I had better bend to my task and begin preparing for the usual Sunday teatime onslaught.  None of them is going to be overly impressed if I am not ready upon their return, especially if the excuse is that I had tied myself up in knots speculating on the nature of sainthood. Next week, it all starts up again, of course, with the added “bonus” that it’s only seven weeks to Christmas. I fear it’s wrong to wish away my life hoping for a mild winter and an early spring, but nevertheless I sort of get the impression that’s what I will be doing.  That, and a lot of book-marketing.  Meanwhile, I wanna be in that number, when the sun begins to shine.

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