It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley, and one in which winter finally bared its teeth and snarled. Anyone who doubted that the weather is getting more extreme (not necessarily because of global warming, but climate change definitely seems to be happening, however much people with vested interests argue about the odd degree on a thermometer) need only to have stood on our decking and watched the trees down the valley reeling from the savage punches of wind gusting up to 70mph.
It was probably only the fact that most of their leaves had already gone that prevented major losses in terms of swathes of felled and uprooted woodland. As it was, they thrashed and bent, but didn’t break. The rain was once again nearly horizontal, cold and needle-sharp. I know this because it got me a couple of times during the week, and even the trundle down the ramp to the dustbin and back left me wet through and shivering.
The Arun tumbles in his bed,
And gusty gales go by
When branches bare on Burton Glen
And Bury Hill is whitening,
I’ll drink strong ale with gentlemen
Which no-one can deny, deny,
As Hilaire Belloc might have said, if he were here right now. And for once, I believe the south country did have it just as bad as us.
Yesterday, Deb took Misty out for a walk up Dove Stones, while I looked after Zak, Ellie, and Matilda. Zak, because he has injured his paw and isn’t allowed to go walkies. Ellie, because she is only nine inches high and white, and is therefore apt to get lost in snowdrifts, and Matilda because her default position these days is curled up on a Maisie-blanket of choice with her nose in her tail. She did the world’s quickest retreat this week, when she made the major tactical error of going out onto the decking just as it was raked by a gust of wind-borne rain like machine-gun fire. One second she had her tail up and was heading in one direction, then a quick mid-air volte face, and she was coming back with her tail down and her ears flat. She didn’t move from the sofa for the rest of the day.
While I was listening to Zak and Ellie snoring in harmony on their respective beds, Deb and Misty were battling the elements up on the peaks. There was snow – the first of the winter – and ice underfoot. Misty decided that she had heard something that spooked her and set off, crossing the stream and going down the other bank. Debbie followed, trying to call her back, and finally realised there was nothing for it, but she, too, would have to ford the icy stream to have any chance of catching up with Misty. Reluctantly, and gingerly, she did so, getting thoroughly wet in the process. When she got further down, she saw Misty, who had at least waited for Deb to catch up, but in the process, the dog had re-crossed the stream and was once more on the opposite side to its owner. Deb tried to entice Misty back over to her side, but the daft mutt now seemed strangely reluctant to make it a hat-trick and cross for the third time. Eventually, finally, she did, and the walk was swiftly concluded.
When she got back, and I had heard the tale recounted, I gave her an extra ration of Canicalm. The dog, not Debbie. There’s nothing like a good, solid bolting of a stable door, is there? Zak polished off the food which Misty had left, including the Canicalm, and considering he is a pretty laid-back dog at the best of times, I’m surprised it didn’t tip him over into “comatose”. There have been several times when I could have quite happily dosed myself with Canicalm this week, as, on top of the normal Christmas marketing farrago, the vandals have been back again.
On Friday morning, Father Jack came down from the garage to pick up the camper and take it away for investigation of a leak which had been causing a small puddle to accumulate inside the front passenger footwell. This is the precursor to a much bigger job which involves fixing the seals on all the windows. He dropped off the loan car and picked up the keys. Pulling out of the driveway he saw a bus coming, and thought better of it. He put his foot on the brakes and nothing happened. The pipes had been cut once again.
Fortunately, there wasn’t an accident, but there could easily have been, and it could easily have been to Debbie. Once again, I’m afraid, cutting someone’s brake pipes is tantamount, to attempted murder. Anyway, on top of everything else, we now have the police involved again, another huge insurance claim to fight (God alone knows what our premium is going to be next year) and the various defensive measures which we were instigating as a result of the last attack are now once more up at the top of the batting order, and I have spent more time than I can spare, really, talking to CCTV companies, fitters of security lights, and wreakers of wrought-iron gates with sharp spikes on top. If we have to turn this house into a modern day version of Crac de Chevalier, we will. The police are coming to take a statement at teatime today, anyway.
So, if this Epiblog ends up rather shorter than normal, I hope you’ll forgive the brevity. It makes a change from my usual going on and on and on and on. I haven’t paid much attention to the outside world this week, for obvious reasons, but I would have had to be mad, deaf, and blind to have missed the massive anti-Muslim backlash after the Paris shootings. It encompassed everyone from the Prime Minister downwards, if indeed you can use the word “downwards” in that context. Given the doings and deeds of the current Junta, I often feel the only way is “up”. Amongst the wackier suggestions were a petition on the government web site calling for the UK to close its borders immediately (started by a British ex-pat who spends six months of every year in Spain, go figure…) and a proposal that all Muslims in the UK should be rounded up and interned in camps on remote islands off the west coast of Scotland. Presumably the fact that the younger generation of those islands has left those very isles because of there being no accommodation and no jobs, means that there’d be a readily available Scottish labour force to take the place of the interned Muslims in running the shops, takeaways and substantial parts of the NHS throughout the north of England.
Lest we should think this is just random craziness, however, we shouldn’t forget that Donald Trump, would-be president of the USA, has suggested that Muslims should all have to wear badges in public, so that non-Muslims can recognise them. Now, why does that have a familiar ring to it? He was speaking against the background of the US Congress trying to pass a bill that would have put an end to the US saying “bring us your poor, your huddled masses”, in effect closing the country to refugees from religious persecution on the grounds that letting them in might damage the interests of those already living there. Go tell it to Geronimo.
What cracks me up about all this is that nobody routinely asks Christians to justify/condemn the outrages of nominally-Christian nutters. When a family of three Muslims was shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, back in February, did anyone ask the Archbishop of Canterbury for a statement condemning the shootings? I’m not saying he wouldn’t willingly have given such a statement, but the point is, no one asked. Yet as soon as ISIS, who actually have about as much to do with Islam as I do with pole-dancing, pull the trigger, there is outrage not only at the deed itself, but also because “ordinary” or “moderate” Muslims don’t “condemn” the deed. The fact is, they often do – the Muslim Council of Britain issued a swift condemnation, to name but one – but it’s never news. The people the media seek out for comments on these sorts of events are always the Anjem Choudharys or the Omar Bakris of this world. It’s like asking the late Rev. Ian Paisley for a comment on ecumenical matters in Ulster. Plus, what exactly are moderate Muslims supposed to do to stop ISIS anyway – as one of them “tweeted” rather memorably this week, he can’t even get a text back from a girl he fancies, so how do we expect him to stop an international terror organisation?
Mr Cameron’s answer to the problem is (predictably) more bombing. Spurred on, no doubt, by Bomber Hammond, the Defence Secretary, who seems to think he is Guy Gibson. This time, it seems, they are not even going to bother with that tedious issue of getting parliament’s approval. Well, it turned out we were already bombing Syria by means of embedded forces anyway, and parliament didn’t know/wasn’t told about that, either, so I don’t suppose it makes much odds in Cameron’s eyes. He even went so far as to say that he wasn’t entirely convinced that we needed a UN mandate to start dropping HE on Raffa from 20,000 feet. Because, after all, it worked so well last time, didn’t it? This morning, however, the government has slightly shifted its position and is now saying that they will only call a vote in parliament on bombing Syria when they are sure of winning such a vote, which means that they’ve more or less said that the action they are calling for at present doesn’t have anything like the universal popular appeal they claim it does.
This, coincidentally or not, happened when Mr Cameron has been asking for the Prime Minister to have his own personal jet, a sort of “Air Force One” for the UK. The supposed justification, in these times of “austerity” being that it will somehow save the taxpayer money. Obviously he’s never heard of Ryanair or Easyjet. Actually, he knows full well that it won’t be cheaper, it’s simply that he’s painted himself into a corner in terms of security where it’s no longer possible or advisable for him to use scheduled flights. I do, however, have a suggestion: since Mr Cameron’s apparently so eager to bomb Syria, perhaps his new jet could be fitted with bomb racks so he can deliver additional value for money to the taxpayer by carrying out the raids in person, instead of endangering the lives of British service personnel in yet another misguided foreign-policy adventure.
I’m often asked, when I write like this, well, what would you do? How would you solve the situation? For a start, it cannot be solved by bombing. Even with the best will in the world, bombing as a strategy will not defeat ISIS for two reasons. One, even the smartest smart bomb in the world, backed by the best intelligence, will get it wrong. Innocent civilians will be killed – are already being killed, in fact. The more people who are bombing, the more refugees – it’s a simple equation. And the more innocent people who are killed, the more potential there is for the shadowy figureheads behind ISIS to radicalise the remainder, the grieving relatives, who now have a grievance as well as a grief. Give them an AK-47 and what have you got? Bippity boppity boo.
The other reason is that you can’t bomb an ideology. If you are at war with a state, a country, as we were with Nazi Germany for instance, you engage their armed forces, you blockade them, you bomb their factories, communications and means of production, and eventually, the powers that be in that state lose control of it, it ceases to function as an entity, and you invade and take over the running of the conquered country. But ISIS aren’t a state, they are scattered pockets of death-obsessed lunatics with heavy weapons, living cheek-by-jowl with civilians in the ruins of Syria, which ceased to be a functioning state a while ago. The whole Syrian adventure has been a masterclass in how to get it wrong. So much so that we have gone from trying to undermine Assad by arming the rebels to desperately trying to shore him up with new bombing raids.
So the first thing that needs to happen is everybody needs to stop bombing Syria. In fact, there needs to be a complete cease-fire and a no-fly zone. This needs to be able to be sustained for long enough for a massive humanitarian effort on the ground in Syria itself, to stem the flow of refugees at source. The problem is, however, that ISIS won’t listen to any of this. They want one thing and one thing only, to take over the Syrian state and run it as a quasi-medieval Taleban fiefdom. The only answer to that one seems to be that, before the no-fly zone and cease-fire can take place, that there needs to be a massive ground effort to put ISIS back in its box, at least for the time being, or push it back to areas where it can be contained. I do not think, however, that it should be UK or American or even EU troops doing this – I’d like to see a Saudi Arabian effort, backed by the approval of the UN.
Saudi Arabia has been sitting on the sidelines. We know they have some of the most sophisticated military equipment in the world, because we sold it to them. They need to sort out the mess on their doorstep, go in and restore order. If that means Assad has to stay on for the time being, so be it, the important thing now is to stabilise the country enough for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid. This is not a perfect solution. We have faffed about and tinkered with Syria so much that we’re now in a situation where there are no good options any more, only bad ones – and this seems to be the least bad one. Obviously, as there is no direct border, it would also involve the co-operation of Jordan and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia gets away with murder at the moment, in terms of disengagement, looking both ways, and duplicitous hypocrisy. And sometimes, it gets away with murder literally, as well. This week, Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi poet, was sentenced to death by an “Islamic” court in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam. He has already spent two years in prison after a visit from the religious police for “smoking and having long hair”.
This is apparently an English translation of the poem he wrote, which is being used as evidence of his apostasy:
Asylum: To stand at the end of a queue…
To be given a morsel of bread.
To stand! Something your grandfather used to do... Without knowing the reason why.
The Morsel? You.
The homeland: A card to put in your wallet.
Money: Papers that carry images of Leaders.
The Photo: Your substitution pending your return.
And the Return: A mythological creature… from your grandmother’s tales.
End of the first lesson.
If we stand by and watch the Saudis executing people for writing poetry, good or bad, it matters not, then we can truly abandon all pretensions as to civilisation. And if this isn’t proof that the Saudis have far too much time on their hands, and would be much better off employed sorting out ISIS, then I don’t know what is.
Here at home, there have been the usual stories which, when you first look at them, you aren’t quite sure if they are serious or if they emanate from the growing number of spoof satirical web sites designed to poke fun at the great and the good. George Osborne has injected millions of pounds into the MPs’ hardship fund. Yes, you heard me right. It’s apparently a fund that exists to help out MPs who fall into straitened circumstances when they reach retirement, and they are down to their last lecture tour, consultancy fee, or book deal. And yes, these are the same MPs who are allowed, while they are MPs voting themselves 11% salary increases, to also keep their lucrative additional jobs as stockbrokers, lawyers, broadcasters, you name it.
They have also been filibustering again. The news report showing loathsome back-bench Tory MPs talking without allowing interruption to deny, this time, the teaching of first aid to children by deliberately running out of time, was also notable for the fact that it showed there were only about a dozen people in the whole chamber. In any other job, if you only turned up when you felt like it, fiddled your expenses, and carried on extensive alternative employment while still drawing your salary, you would be on a “disciplinary” faster than you could say P45, and rightly so. It’s high time there was a minimum attendance requirement for MPs and a ban on them having any other paid employment while they are serving in parliament.
Two things have happened, though, this week, that have restored my battered faith in humanity somewhat. The first was the story that the workers on oil rigs in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland have been rescuing exhausted owls which have been turning up and roosting on their rigs – presumably after flying 30 or 40 miles over open sea, probably after being disturbed by bad weather. When the owls are well enough, they are airlifted back to the mainland and released back into the wild.
The second is a more personal tale. One of my friends on Facebook, we’ll call him Peter, lives in Paris and was an unwilling bystander when the French police and special forces stormed a flat in his neighbourhood during the week, and the gang responsible for planning the previous week’s shootings attempted to blast their way out and were (mostly) killed. Despite all this mayhem going on two streets away, Peter has taken in an injured cat with a poorly leg. Sinbad, for that is the mog’s name, used to live with a bloke called Nasser, who was forced to move, but couldn’t take the cat with him. Peter has not only offered the cat a home but paid for its leg operation. The vet, too, only charged half of the normal rate and waived his consultation fee.
So, there are good people around, it’s just getting harder to see them, I guess. Anyway, today is Stir-Up-Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, when you are supposed to come home from church, inspired by the collect for today,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And begin feverish preparations on your Christmas pudding, with the whole family joining in the stirring and each making a wish as they go. The pudding should always be stirred from East to West, in homage to the three wise men who came to visit Jesus. Pudding preparations notwithstanding, it sounds like a good prayer for our times. We could certainly do with people bringing “plenteously” forth the “fruit of good works”, especially after so many bad ones. It’s a prayer, for once, I could gladly join in with. As for the wishes, where do I start?
That war won’t be allowed to escalate, that people will realise that not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslims. That a way can be found to disengage with Syria, stop the fighting, and administer aid. That the refugees and the homeless are housed and the hungry are fed. That the missing animals come home, or, failing that, are found and are re-homed. I could add, that the people who keep vandalising our van fall down a list shaft, but then that would make me as bad as they are. Perhaps the fact that I can realise that means I am evolving, or my long-dormant sense of forgiveness is. But then again, when I think about what could have happened to Debbie if she’d tried to drive it, then I have no good wishes for these people – the kindest thing I could wish for is for what they tried to do to us to happen to them – for their evil intentions to rebound on them, with whatever consequences.
Anyway, that’s a long list for Big G to work down, especially when he’s already got his hands full elsewhere. So I am not expecting anything dramatic to happen any time soon. But then, like the glimmers of winter sunshine in the midst of the November storms, like the good deeds of the owl rescuers and the cat-rescuers in the midst of the unrelenting bad news, perhaps we need to remember, and cling onto, that there are nuggets of hope, twinkling in the dross at the bottom of the gold miner’s pan, or like the bright sixpence at the bottom of the Christmas pudding mix. Because if ever there was a time when we needed
the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.