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

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Sunday, 27 December 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of St John The Apostle

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley.  Even though it contained two or three days of supposed rest and holiday. I say “supposed” because in the end, with the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas didn’t seem much like Christmas this year, for reasons which I will go into presently.  Actually, I can deal with one of those reasons straight away: the weather. In the same way as we no longer have stifling, sweltering summers where the oak trees give a deep bank of shade to the cows gathering at the field edge to flick away the horse-flies, and the hay-makers lie amongst the stooks, swigging cider from stone costrils in the cool of the evening, we no longer have those winters where the frost glistens on the road and the snow lies deep and crisp and even and the shepherd drives his flock bleating at the cold up the rutted lane with their breath steaming, to get them into the lambing shed. Now we have a) wind, and b) rain, and sometimes both together.

And so it proved this week, with the usual results. Matilda hardly ventured out of the house, the dogs came back wet, smelly and bedraggled. Debbie came back wet smelly and bedraggled. The dogs lay in front of the fire, steaming themselves dry and farting quietly in their sleep, while Debbie… Debbie went upstairs, and got changed.  The squirrels and birds don’t know its Christmas, of course, but we did give them a Christmas dinner of sorts, the last of the black sunflower seeds and a huge pile of bird seed. The squirrels especially must have been desperately hungry, because even when the wind was blasting them with sharp needles of horizontal rain, they were there at the dish, doggedly feeding.

As for me, once I had waved off the last courier on 23rd December, my focus switched to sorting out domestic stuff. We haven’t yet managed to formulate a plan for getting off in the camper over this holiday period, largely because it’s a bit difficult loading up to set off on a trip when the weather is like a car-wash. At least the camper itself is a whole lot more watertight than it was, something for which we remain grateful.  Also on December 23rd, just to show that even “first world” problems have a habit of coming back and biting you on the bum, the dustmen failed to take the bin, so obviously the news that I am on the assisted bin list has not filtered through to the rank and file of Kirklees Council. I can see I am going to have to deploy my Ray Mears bushcraft skills and tempt the bin men down the drive with another carefully-crafted bin bag brimming with luscious, prime, Monty Don leaf mould.

Just as I was beginning to think that Old Nobodaddy had no more tricks up his sleeve, on the day before Christmas Even, the bolt holding the arm on to my wheelchair sheared suddenly, which meant that I had developed a drastic list to the right.  A phone call to the emergency repairs line initially fell at the first hurdle, when in the middle of the little spiel about leaving a message at the sound of the “beep”, it cut to a continuous tone and disconnected me.  However, a friend suggested I should have another go, so I did, and got through that time, leaving a message. I still didn’t expect anything by way of response, but, sure enough, at 10.30AM on Christmas Eve, a van pulled up outside and a man with a toolbox came in an fixed it for me. He even stroked Matilda’s head successfully for a while, until she spat and hissed at him.  Once more, the NHS confounded my expectations, but in a good way this time, and equilibrium was restored.

I listened to the festival of nine lessons and carols from King’s College chapel, which for me normally marks the start of “official Christmas”, and it is true, Christmas Eve was a really good time, a time to be thankful, as we sat by the stove, the dogs and Matilda safely inside. The bottle of brandy which is kept for largely medicinal purposes was broached, and we roasted some chestnuts on the open stove, something we only ever seem to do at Christmas.  Only two things marred the proceedings for me, one being the general vague feeling that out there, in the car wash, in the howling wind, were people with no homes and lost animals, and there was nothing I could do about it, and the second, more practical concern being that, in crunching down on a particularly cremated bit of chestnut, I seemed to have set my dodgy molar off.

And so it proved. Overnight, despite blasting it with Paracetamol, I had about an hour’s sleep. It was entirely my own fault. I do tend to neglect dentistry, and where teeth are concerned, it is invariably a case of “a stitch [or a filling] in time, saves nine.” Obviously it’s more difficult to get to the dentist for me these days, and finding a dentist who will do NHS work anyway is an increasing conundrum.  Either way, none of that helped me in the watches of the night, when I lay there trying to get to sleep.

So I spent Christmas day dozing in my wheelchair, clutching various hot water bottles, and my traditional Christmas dinner was a mushroom cup-a-soup.  By the evening, it was starting to wear off, or at least be kept in check by repeatedly bombing it with painkillers, so I cooked us a better meal which included pretend beef strips, stuffing balls, and mushrooms stuffed with Granovita mushroom paste (the latter an experiment but it worked surprisingly well, putting them in the oven with the stuffing).

Because I was “out of the loop” in more ways than one, and because in any case at Christmas the news tends to be abbreviated to five-second clips of the Pope on his balcony, the Queen, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, I hadn’t really been following the outside world with any great attention.  Some stories, however, could not be ignored: the rain was not just nasty, inconvenient and unpleasant, it also meant floods. More floods for the poor people in the Lake District, who had only just recovered from the last lot. And new floods for the Ribble Valley and for Calderdale, not to mention Leeds and Manchester city centres.  Sadly, some of the people whose businesses were flooded in Mytholmroyd in 2012, and have been unable to secure insurance since,  have now lost everything a second time, and are facing ruin.

Mr Cameron has apparently held a “conference call” meeting of COBRA, the James-Bond-named government committee that kicks in whenever something goes badly wrong. Tomorrow, he will visit the affected areas himself, to see the devastation caused by cutting funding for flood defences at first hand.  While it is better that he goes to see the disaster in person rather than remaining in London, platitudes and expressions of sympathy will only go so far.  There is one thing the government could do which would be fairly easy and would probably be cheaper in the long run than dealing with this catastrophe through the normal channels.

They should, firstly, define the specific geographical disaster area. That ought to be fairly easy to do on a map – just look for the bits currently underwater.  Then within that area, the government should announce that it is going to be the insurer of last resort.  There will be three types of casualties in business and domestic terms – people who could have got insurance but never bothered, people who couldn’t get insurance even though they wanted to, because of the previous floods, such as the bakery in Mytholmroyd now flooded for the second time in three years, and people who did have valid insurance in place.

Taking the last category first, the insurance industry is going to be overwhelmed by this. It will be months if not years until some claims are settled. In these cases, the government should advance a disaster grant to these people of up to 75% of the policy value, straight away, on the understanding that this would be repaid when the insurers eventually pay out.  This would mean that, instead of being stuck waiting, people could start to get their homes, business and lives back together within a few days, safeguarding jobs in the case of businesses. This would be cheaper than paying out unemployment benefit for months on end.

The second category, the people who had tried to get insurance but were refused, would have to be helped out by the provision of soft loans, repayable in chunks. Again, the idea would be to get the help in place quickly, to get things started up again, to safeguard jobs as before, and again, I contend it would be cheaper in the long run than trying to deal with the consequences of the floods through the normal channels.

What to do with the people who could have insured their homes and businesses but didn’t, is a problematic issue. Maybe they should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. But even if they were ignored completely, then at least two thirds of the problem would be being addressed, and a damn sight more quickly than leaving it to the likes of the Norwich Union.

Talk of “the normal channels” of course, brings us back to flood defences. In July 2012, the Guardian revealed that almost 300 “shovel-ready” flood defence projects, which had been in line for funding, had not been built owing to “austerity” budget cuts. The Environment Agency, the executive arm of DEFRA that deals with flooding, lost 1700 jobs between January and October 2014, and that is on top of the 1150 lost since 2009. I don’t have the breakdown of how many of these people were hands-on shovel-wielders, but even if they were all pen-pushers you can’t make those sort of cuts without some impact on the overall efficiency of the service.

Charles Tucker, chairman of the National Flood Forum, which represents hundreds of affected communities, said, in January 2014, almost a year ago:

"It's about joined-up thinking. With joined-up thinking, you don't cut the staff at the EA who manage flooding and maintain flood assets. With joined-up thinking, you don't keep cutting local council capability to deal with the new flooding responsibilities they've been given."

Owen Paterson, who was the Environment Minister at the time of the previous floods, described criticism of flood defence budget cuts as "chuntering" and "blather" and said "difficult decisions" had been forced on ministers by the "dire economic circumstances" left by the last Labour government. I wonder if he’s now wishing he’d paid more attention to the chuntering and blather, two things on which he was always an expert, anyway.  The cost of the abandoned schemes in Yorkshire and Lancashire was £17million, or to put it another way, about twenty Storm Shadow missiles.

Because even in the season of peace and goodwill to all men, we can still find money for expensive bangs in the desert. And it seems that, soon, we may have to add Sangin to the target list again, as well, because, as predicted, and not just by me, the Taleban in Afghanistan have realised that their plan of just waiting until all the western troops had gone home, and then coming out to play, can now be put into action. And if we don’t now go back and defend it again, then the politicians will have to admit they were wrong the first time, and the British service personnel who died out there gave their lives in vain. Which they will never do.  Meanwhile, the refugee boats keep coming, with seven children and six adults drowning this Christmas week, when their boat capsized off the Greek coast.

In the wider world, the Christmas spirit seems to have been generally lacking in the actions of officialdom. Exeter City Council was forced to admit 57 separate instances of having confiscated tents from homeless people over the last 18 months. But it’s OK, because “after seven days, the homeless can reclaim their property”. What a pointless, pettifogging, piss-poor performance.  A Muslim family of 11, meanwhile, was barred from flying out to Disneyland from the UK for a Christmas holiday by the US Department of Homeland Security, who gave no reason for their actions, which resulted in an outright loss of the family’s air fares.  David Cameron has promised to “look into it”. Apparently. 

And Myrtle Cothill, a 92-year-old pensioner, is facing deportation and the prospect of dying alone and far from her family, because of the new, tighter, “Adult Dependant Relative” or “ADR” immigration rules introduced by the Junta in 2012 to keep the likes of the Daily Mail happy.  Severely ill, she has been told she must return to her native South Africa, where she has no remaining relatives, instead of being allowed to remain in the UK and be cared for by her daughter. It’s not just her, either – many other families with elderly relatives face a similar dilemma, and not all of them achieve the sympathy and the coverage from the UK press, because not all of them are white.

It’s been a week sadly lacking in Christmas bonhomie, in some quarters then, and many people, in the flooded areas and elsewhere, have once more been banging on about how we should look after our own first and about how this is a Christian country, etc, etc.  Mostly people who only ever attend church three times in their life and for one of those events they were dead anyway. Mostly people who would happily demonstrate their Christian principles by leaving a refugee lying in the gutter and passing by on the other side.  They still don’t get it that it’s not either/or and that “our own” includes all of humanity.  But it doesn’t do to start asking awkward questions about why we can’t ever find the money for flood defences when we can always find the money for bombs, or why we can’t find the money to feed and house everyone, but we can always find the money to create more homeless, more refugees. If you start asking questions like “well, why can’t it be like Christmas every day?” people will deride you as being “left-wing” and “socialist”, as if those words were insults.

Anyway, somehow we have blundered through Christmas and come out at the other side, and today is the feast of St John the Apostle.  Otherwise known as St John the Evangelist, and St John the Divine, assuming that they really are all the same person and that it was the same John who wrote the Book of Revelation while in exile on Patmos.  John the Apostle was the younger brother of James, son of Zebedee. Such is the grip that the mind-rotting influence of The Magic Roundabout had on my entire generation, that I had to fight quite hard to resist the temptation to type the word “boing!” after Zebedee’s name.  Zebedee, James and John were fishermen, which instantly makes them appeal to me, coming as I do from a line of descent that leads back to Thomas Henry Rudd, who met his demise off the coast of Portugal.  What would Thomas Henry Rudd do maybe doesn’t have the same ring as what would Jesus do, but as a touchstone it’s often seen me through some tricky times.  Jesus referred to James and John as Boanerges, which translates as “Sons of Thunder” and, coincidentally, was actually also the nickname of my second ever motor bike.

John is the patron saint of authors, love and fidelity and has often been associated with the symbol of the eagle. He died of old age in Ephesus, aged 94, in AD 100, or alternatively he was martyred by the Jews, depending who you believe and which John they think they are talking about.

The story of John, for all its uncertainties, is too well known for me to bore you here with its re-telling, He was there or thereabouts at almost every significant event in the life of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Last Supper, and it was to John and Peter that Mary Magdalene ran, on finding the empty tomb of Jesus. His Gospel, if indeed he wrote it, contains the highest concentration of first-hand eye-witness type accounts of the doings of Jesus, reading as if the author was really present.

As a writer, for me, he veers from being scary to being impenetrable.  I once had to read John 1 (“In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, etc”) aloud in church, back in the days when I was in the Boys’ Brigade. A truly terrifying experience, made all the more so because the bad angel on my other shoulder was always tempting me to segue into Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen (Have you heard, about the bird, bird bird bird, the bird is the word, etc). I made it, but only just. Then there is the Book of Revelation, with its fiery lakes and Tower of Babel and lamb of God and seven seals and all that malarkey. What are we to make of that, apart from possibly a hat, or a brooch? Like all such predictions, and “futurology”, it’s always possible to find some details that fit contemporary events. You can even do it with Nostradamus. But perhaps John isn’t intending to tell us exactly what will happen at the Apocalypse, blow by blow and word for word, but rather to try and write the un-writeable, by opening his mind, and thus ours, to just one vision of how the unthinkable might pan out?

My main problem with John is with the Evangelism. I am still not entirely sure that Evangelism is a good thing, or at least not in every instance. Letting people find out and decide for themselves has to be preferable.  The problem seems to arise, for me, when adherents of one religion seek to impose their views on others, especially if those views come with a rigid, inflexible, one-size-fits-all, morality attached.  So, for this reason alone, John would be a problematic figure for me to come to terms with, because the older I get, the less I believe in evangelism as a way of solving anything. Far better to lead by example, surely, than to coerce people under the threat of damnation?

I find myself preferring Jesus’s simple commandment to love one another, or St Paul’s words from 1 Corinithans, which always resound for me, especially in the original King James full fat high tar version:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;  rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Which, I guess, brings me back to the rescue efforts and the floods. It’s always the incredible generosity and spirit of the people who turn out and help at times like these that helps to restore your faith in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Charity in this context means “love”, and not just the sort that is concerned with providing soup kitchens, but a real, abiding concern for the well-being of our neighbour.  Lack of government help notwithstanding the way the communities and the emergency and voluntary services have turned out and worked together is more of an advert for the principles of Christianity than any number of evangelical billboards asking where will you be on Judgement Day.

In an odd concatenation of reality and fiction, in the BBC’s long-running radio 4 “soap” The Archers, the character Lynda Snell has just, rather improbably but joyously all the same, been re-united, on Christmas Eve, with her own dog, Scruff, presumed drowned in the Ambridge flood back in March.  At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget that many real-life pets will be in peril because of these floods, and this is happening at a time when all the rescues and shelters are already under pressure and facing their own Christmas rush as unwanted pets are dumped in the coming weeks.  Perhaps we should consider the MOD putting a couple of Storm Shadows on Ebay and giving the money to Rain Rescue.

Anyway, I am typing this to the sound of the staccato pattering of yet more rain on our conservatory roof.  Any moment now, I expect, the dogs and Debbie will be back, soaked to the skin yet again from another excursion in the dark.  So I have got to get ready to “look after my own”, by putting the kettles on and bombing up the stove.  Half of York is under water tonight, apparently, and all I can think of to do, right now, is to pray for them, and for their pets and animals, and pray for those trying to rescue them.

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