It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. It finally turned colder, as well, which made the wind and the ceaseless rain all the nastier. Our garage roof is going to need some serious, and probably expensive, attention, but in the meantime it’s a case of plug the gaps and pray for it to fair up.
Needless to say, none of the animals likes the weather. Matilda complains to me about the rain, as if I can do anything about it. She sits just inside the conservatory door, watching it come down in sheets, until her little bladder must be feeling the strain, then she scuttles off, with her ears flat to her head and her tail down, returning about 90 seconds later and meowing to be let back in, now. Consequently she has spent rather a lot of the last week curled up and snoozing on one or other of her various Maisie-blankets, on her favourite perches either in the kitchen, the conservatory, or Colin’s settee.
She did make one notable break with tradition however, when she climbed up on the conservatory windowsill because she saw Spidey, next door’s cat, daring to cross her decking, on some feline mission or other, and she started doing her pieces at him through the window. Spidey, who is made of sterner stuff, ignored her, and carried on his way.
Meanwhile, she squirrels and the birds have had an unexpected early Christmas, in the form of a red cross parcel from the Winchelsea branch of the family, containing not only cat and dog treats for the official pets, but also peanuts and sunflower seeds for the unofficial ones. They have been very grateful for these this week, and the squirrels in particular have been holding parties on the decking to celebrate. We’ve also had dozens of birds down, including Jays, drawn by the peanuts. Normally, I only ever see Jays in the spring and summer.
Debbie has also been forced to curtail her forays somewhat by the weather. Well, a combination of the weather, the cold and the darkness. The dogs, of course, being dogs, have no sense of time. To a dog, there is little difference between an hour in the woods on the way to Blackmoorfoot, and a thirteen mile route march over West Nab, except in the degree of tiredness and muddiness at the end of it. Misty came back absolutely plastered with mud on at least two occasions, and Ellie at least once – and of course, being a white dog, she shows it much more. Ellie is quickly tired, being only about nine inches high, and it’s quite amusing to see how quickly she falls asleep after getting back, being rubbed down with the dog-towel, scoffing her tea, and getting warm by the fire.
Deb has a variety of layers of clothing to keep out the cold and wet and her latest wheeze is that she has started wearing cycling leggings as well as all the other wet weather gear. This necessitates a period of preparation similar to that of a medieval knight donning their hauberk, chain mail and armour, before being winched onto their horse, and a similar “decommissioning” period on returning. The cycling leggings are, for some reason, a men’s size. On removing them the other night, she held them up and said “These are supposed to be short-to-medium men’s. How would a short-to-medium man get into these?” I replied that I supposed he would start by offering to buy her dinner, which earned me one of her funny looks.
We were not the only ones affected by the rain of course. Other people got it much worse than we did. We’re fortunate in that way, living 250 feet up on the slope of a valley. When the water does collect on Meltham Road, it simply drains straight through the garden, en route to the River Holme and, ultimately, to the Humber and the North Sea. But the floods in Cumbria, which I touched on briefly last week, turned out to be absolutely horrendous and worse in some cases than the previous ones only a few years ago. Some poor people were now being flooded out for the second time in four years.
I’ve said this before, and no doubt I will say it again: if we have money to bomb Syria, we have money to build proper flood defences, and dredge the rivers properly, to boot. All this week, while people in Cumbria were watching the brown sludge ruin their kitchens and living rooms, politicians in some swanky Parisian hotel were arguing about whether or not there should be a quarter percent more or less on emissions targets. How much longer can we go on ignoring the reality that the climate has already changed, probably irrevocably, and it is time to drastically accelerate the issue of what we are going to do about that inescapable fact?
There are people who say I haven’t a good word for this government, which is actually not true: I have several very good words for them, but none of them are suitable for deployment on the Sabbath, or in a blog that does not have an 18+ rating. Once more, we had the spectacle of the Prime Minister visiting the stricken areas and promising that something should be done, when he has presided over a government that has cut the money for flood defences and abandoned subsidies for developing wave and wind power. Still, when it comes to hypocrisy, nothing is too much trouble for the man, especially when there are floating voters (literally in this case) to be won over.
The least that the government could do in the circumstances is to act as an “insurer of last resort”, as I have written previously – give people who can prove they have the insurance in place immediate cash grants now, so they can get on with rebuilding the lives, on the grounds that the money would be repaid to the government out of the insurance money when the claim is eventually settled by the slow, tardy, foot-dragging, and probably overwhelmed, insurance industry, six months down the line.
The only heartening thing about the whole imbroglio is the way in which ordinary people have, once again, stepped up to the plate and begun organising their own network of donations, fundraisers and physical help with the clean-up, stepping into the vacuum left by politicians. Since then, though, we have – regrettably – had yet more rain. Still, it’s not all bad news – Britain has, according to the man currently masquerading as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “got its Mojo back” now that we are bombing Syria. I’m sure it will be a great comfort to the flooded out people of Keswick, Carlisle and Cockermouth, that Britain .has got its Mojo back. I’m sure it will delight the Syrian families digging through rubble to find the corpses of their children, that Britain has got its Mojo back. I’m absolutely certain that it will have been a great comfort to Ali Alsaho, fleeing the Syrian bombing together with his family, who all drowned in the Aegean last week, including his youngest child, just 20 days old, to know that Britain has got its bloody Mojo back. And, of course, the more Britain gets its Mojo back, the more the boats will keep coming, and the more people will drown.
The drownings have been – according to reports as reliable as any others from the area – exacerbated by the efforts of Turkish coastguards to sink migrants boats wherever they feel they can get away with it. This in turn is a result of the deal quietly struck at the beginning of December whereby Turkey got three billion Euros and a commitment to accelerate the negotiations for Turkey’s EU membership in return for a commitment to sealing its borders and turning back refugees. This is happening in tandem with a policy of racial profiling currently in force at the borders of a number of Balkan countries (including Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia) that bar entry to all refugees apart from those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proponents of these measures point to the fact that detaining the refugees in camps in Turkey while they can be screened and properly assessed is no bad thing, and neither is sealing the Turkish border. But the border is only being sealed to refugees, not to recruits travelling in the other direction, and there is no end-game solution to what happens, post-camp incarceration, to those who do make it to Turkey. It is a far cry from the integrated, managed, process which is needed. It amounts to the rest of the EU in effect pulling up the drawbridge and dumping the problem on Turkey.
High wind, and unpredictable outbursts have also featured this week on the other side of the Atlantic, but rather than being in the weather forecasts, they have been a feature of the presidential campaign, in the form of Donald Trump. The fact that Donald Trump apparently admires the views of Katie Hopkins should tell us all we need to know about the man. He also wants to ban all Muslims from coming to the USA if he is elected, which will make some diplomatic visits rather problematic, but I don’t think he’s thought that one through. Perhaps he would receive the Saudi delegation at Guantanamo Bay, or some other suitable neutral venue.
It is all too easy to satirise Donald Trump. For a start, his name is a synonym for “fart” in England, and then there’s the hairstyle, a comb-over confected with L’Oreal and Elnette which looks like a bewildered ginger guinea pig has staked a claim to the top of his head. But despite the fact that the man is a buffoon with hateful, half-baked, ill-informed, neo-Nazi opinions, he’s ahead in the polls. One simple reason for this is that we’re forced to assume that large numbers of Americans share his appalling prejudices and misconceptions, and of course the media laps up every controversial faux pas and regurgitates it ad nauseam, encouraging Trump to then do it again and again, because it keeps his face on the news. In that respect, he has learned a lot from Katie Hopkins.
There’s also an effect which you might call the Thatcher Shadow, which is a phenomenon that happens in British elections as well. People claimed, before the event, to pollsters and the like, that they would not vote for a leader like Thatcher, they didn’t like her, they disagreed with her policies etc. But they were lying to the pollsters, and in the confessional privacy of the polling booth, they put their X against the old bat’s name because, secretly, she both confirmed and allayed their primitive fears. The same thing happened at the 2015 general election with Cameron and the economy. The ditherers, having expressed their doubts, in the end, plumped en masse for the lie that the Junta was a safer bet, economically speaking. I have no doubt whatsoever that the polls in Amercia mask a similar phenomenon a “Trump Shadow” effect that means in reality, he is even further ahead than people think.
One of the mercies of the long, strangulated process that is a presidential election in the US is that there is still a way to go before we see Trump struggling to contain his hairdo during a bleak inauguration in Washington DC. There is still time for him to trip up, implode, crash and burn, or whatever. But it is going to take a concerted effort to stop him, especially as the more he goofs up, the more the electorate seem to love him. He has perfected (as did the Junta here in 2015) the art of the simple lie. He will make America great again. There is a section of society that is responsible for all America’s ills. For him, it’s the Muslims. Eighty years ago, when Hitler was saying the same sort of things to the Germans about Germany (many of whom also professed to dislike him, but voted for him when it came to the stick and lift- the "Hitler Shadow") the scapegoat was the Jews. And we all know how that ended. It is no good mocking Trump’s appearance or his name, although it is very easy, and very satisfying to do so. What people need to do is to start enunciating some simple truths, as loudly and maybe even as bizarrely as Trump is coming out with his Trumpery. Rebut, rebut, rebut, and hope the message gets through.
The media need to stop being so complicit and start asking some questions as well. If Trump had to face the sort of hostile media that Corbyn gets here in the UK on a daily basis, he would be a busted flush by now. It doesn’t help that the media in the USA all start with a right of centre bias, at least the broadcasting media such as Fox news. The same thing happens here in the UK. There was a big Muslim march for peace in Syria this week, but you won’t have seen it on the news. If only they’d had the foresight to set fire to a wreath of poppies beforehand, they would have had camera crews swarming round them like ants on a nest.
Somehow, anyway, today, we have reached the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” means “rejoice”, and so today is a day for rejoicing. The name comes from the introit for today, which is taken from Philippians 4:4,5: "Gaudete in Domino semper" ("Rejoice in the Lord always"). It is also St Lucy’s Day, which, before they started buggering about with this new-fangled modern calendar in 1754, was the shortest day of the year, leading John Donne to write
It is the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s
Lucy’s who scarce seven hours herself unmasks
As it happens, I do have occasion to rejoice today, if only out of relief. I am not at liberty to write about the medical issues affecting those who are close to me, but suffice it to say that for a few weeks now, I have been dealing with a shadow myself, nothing to do with Trump, Thatcher or Hitler, but evil enough, and trying to keep that shadow at bay. Of course, when you have to deal with this kind of threat, it’s easy enough to say “put it out of your mind” and “don’t worry” and that perennial Granny Fenwick favourite, “never trouble trouble, till trouble troubles you,” but nevertheless, it is there, always, out of the corner of your eye. In the words of T S Eliot:
Between the intention, and the action,
Falls the shadow.
This was the week when I knew what it would become apparent whether the shadow really was the shadow we all fear, or something less, but still concerning, and I am pleased to say, it proved to be the latter. Had it been otherwise, I think I may well have given up writing this blog altogether, as with the last vestiges of my already-tattered faith shredded, I could not in all honesty pretend that it would be anything other than hypocritical of me to carry on trying to justify the ways of God to man, not that I was ever much good at that, and often wondered why Big G did not pick some task more in line with my abilities, such as emptying the celestial privy. With luck, that may be still to come, I guess.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to giving up the blog (or should that be unfortunately, for the 17 people who regularly read it?) anyway, for the moment, I am plodding on, putting one foot in front of the other (metaphorically, obviously) on the pilgrim’s way which is life, and I am not out of the woods yet, not by a long chalk. But for the moment, some muted rejoicing is perhaps in order, in conjunction with today. So it was that yesterday, I found myself hand-illuminating a handwritten herbal, while Prinknash Abbey incense wafted across the room and some random monks warbled a plainsong out of the CD. There was also a candle alight in the hearth, but I was working by the aid of a clip-on lamp, so I hadn’t completely fallen through a time-warp into the 11th century, though it was a close-run thing. Anyway, that is what passes for rejoicing in our house, that and re-arranging the kitchen cupboards.
The whole experience has led me once again, though, to examine my response and the nature of prayer. Obviously I prayed for a good outcome, and it would seem, superficially, that my prayers were, on this occasion, answered. Yet there have been other occasions when I prayed for exactly the same thing, and came away disappointed. Four years ago today, our wonderful, faithful, lovable, tolerant old dog, Tiggy, died, and I prayed just as much then for her as I have for my friend over the last few days. It seems, then, that prayer is, as I’ve observed before, much more than simply taking a shopping-list to God and asking for items 3, 5, 7 and for a bonus, one off the top and two off the bottom. God chooses what prayers to grant, for reasons best known to God, and if we don’t like that, down here in the lowest, darkest obscurity, what are we going to do about it? Or, alternatively, Big G chooses which prayers to answer because he isn’t really listening, or because he’s preoccupied elsewhere, or there is in fact nothing at all there to listen to your witterings, out there in the void between the stars, and random bad (and good) things happen for no reason, which is what an atheist would say.
In one sense, there would have been no rationale in my giving up the remains of my faith, such as they are, were my particular prayer not to have been answered, any more than for any other prayer. I could argue that this prayer was especially important to me, but it seems that the issue is which prayers are important to God, see above. My wishes don’t come into it, which I suppose brings me back to “thy will be done”. In which case, is it worth praying at all? Out of the context of the Christian religion, I have known Wiccans who believe that by focusing positive energy on a specific task, a beneficial outcome can be achieved, simply by the power of the mind, and it’s true, I think, that we’ve actually only scratched the surface of what the human psyche can achieve, and that many things which are today thought of as pyschobabble, magic, and mumbo-jumbo will, in times to come, simply have become part of accepted science.
But in turning the idea of prayer, and the worth of prayer, over and over again in my mind, as I have been doing on recent days, it has brought me once again to the same old gnarly paradox that I have come up against before, again and again – is there anybody there, actually listening? Tiggy was a good dog, beyond veterinary help, and maybe prayer was not enough alone to save her. It would have needed a miracle, and there’s a waiting list. My friend had the resources of the NHS, so that at least must count for something. But the paradox remains – as Eliot says in Little Gidding
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
And in truth I know I shall never resolve the paradox, not here, not in this twittering world, as Eliot called it. You just have to be grateful for what you have, and cherish it while you can, I guess, which is another thing I have come to learn from praying. Hug those you love while you are able to hug and while they are able to be hugged.If you are lucky, if you are very lucky, like George Herbert, you might annoy God enough with your prayers to "hear one crying 'Child'" and you will reply "My Lord."
Anyway, Deb and the dogs are back, and it’s time to dry off those wet, muddy, furry legs with a towel. The dogs will need seeing to as well, so I’m going to pack this up and resume my domestic chores. We stand on the brink of a new week, the darkest week of the year, the week that contains the run-up to the Solstice. I’m not particularly looking forward to it, at least not from that point of view, as in my experience the dark always has a couple of last-minute googlies up its sleeve, although it will be good to know that, however vestigially small the amount, the light will be growing again in strength, from a week tomorrow. Another turning point will have been passed. As Yeats said, “gyres run on”.
The van is going to the garage tomorrow, to have its seals inspected, so when that’s done, there will be at least one dry place to shelter from the rain. Our garage, with its roof, is – I suspect – going to be a much bigger job. I don’t think I have ever been so unprepared for Christmas in so many respects as I have this year, so – for instance – if I normally have sent you a Christmas card by now and you haven’t had it, don’t despair. Don’t give up. Like mine, one day, your prayers might be answered! In the meantime, here’s some music to remind me what a good dog Tig was, and how lucky I am right here, right now, to have three wet clarty dogs to clean.