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

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Sunday, 3 April 2016

Epiblog for The Feast of St Richard of Chichester

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. I am beginning to think that winter might, after all, finally have had it.  Even if it snows now, it won’t stick for more than a day or two. We have had a couple of nights of frost, which necessitated putting little plastic cloches over some of the young herbs.  Other than that, the weather has been relatively quiet and uneventful, and the green haze between the bare branches of the woodland grows more intense in colour daily.  The snowdrops have gone now, and the daffs are going, and I think there’s at least one tulip out in Colin’s back garden, so the signs are all good, so far.

The squirrels and birds are pretty much taken as read, these days. Something, also, has been rooting around in the compost heap. If it is the badger, it has so far escaped detection, but it could be anything, really. It could be Bob Flowerdew checking up on us for Gardeners’ Question Time, except I have a feeling he may be currently deceased.

As I have written in previous weeks, I have had concerns that Matilda might be “slowing down” a bit, and perhaps that she may have been older than we were told, when we adopted her back in September 2012.  Particularly, this winter, when she seems to have spent so much of it fast asleep. Not that I blame her, I would have done the same, had workload allowed.  However, I am pleased to relate that, with the coming of the better weather, she does seem to have resumed some of her earlier activities, at the previous level, patrolling around the decking and the garden, for instance. She is still no nearer catching a squirrel than I am, though!

Zak has gone back home, to be reunited with Ellie, following the return of Granny from her solemn progress through those parts of the realm south of the Thames.  However, he made a brief reappearance at lunchtime today because Debbie has taken him and Misty out, up onto the tops for a bit of well-deserved fresh air and sunshine.  While he was here, last week, they did, in total, about 85 miles, spread over five days, so they are certainly not lacking in exercise at the moment.

It’s been pleasant, as well, not to have the relentless early starts, for a change, to enable us both to put something back in a tank which has been running on empty since Christmas.  The disadvantage of shifting a gear, down to a more leisurely pace of life, is, of course, that we still haven’t managed to get the camper ready to go off for a few days next week.  With the better weather, it’s dried out a lot, but there is still a considerable amount of sheer organising that needs doing, and organising takes time and energy. Plus, if it’s a nice day here, Deb would rather load up the dogs and go off for a ramble with them over Dove Stones, not that I blame her, she deserves it - and if it’s nasty weather, then who wants all the doors open and the traipsing in and out when it’s cold and rainy?

So, it remains to be seen where, if anywhere, we will get to in the next few days, or whether we will spend it doing what I have already been doing this week, in what laughably gets referred to as my “spare time” – planning and organising yet further work on the house and the garden, now that we’re taken the decision to bite the bullet and sort out the immediate environment as much as we can this year.  This, too, takes time and energy.  Tradespeople are often quick to witter on about “timewasters”, but are often equally as guilty of wasting my time, by not turning up when they are supposed to, not getting back to us with estimates until they’ve been chased fourteen times, and so on, and so on.

I do sometimes wonder why I bother. The way the country is going, I would probably be better employed stockpiling canned food and candles, and digging a bomb shelter.  Hard on the heels of last week’s budget shambles came the news that making steel in this country is now likely to become an endangered occupation.  We absolutely, positively have to disabuse ourselves of this peculiar notion, which started with Thatcher and has been allowed to grow and fester unchallenged, that running the economy of a major world power is the same as balancing the books of a corner shop in Grantham or a family budget in Droitwich. It isn’t. There are other factors to take into consideration. Strategic factors. Geopolitical factors.

Part of the reason why Tata, who now own the rump of Britain’s once-proud, once nationalised steel industry, are making such a thumping loss, is that the world market is flooded with cheap steel from China.  And this, in turn, is because the Chinese government has been intervening and propping up its own indigenous steel industry. The Chinese are not fools.  They have realised the strategic importance of being able to make your own steel. If , heaven forfend, there is ever another global conflict, or if China, emboldened by the fact that nobody seems to give a dickey-boo about their 65 year illegal occupation of Tibet, or its appalling human rights record,  decides it needs some more battleships, submarines, tanks, or planes, because it feels like invading India, for instance, it will have the capacity to produce these without asking anyone’s by-your-leave.  Plus, it will have mitigated the possibility of hardship and political unrest amongst its working classes at home in the meantime by keeping them happy making steel instead of joining the Falun Gong or plotting to overthrow the government.

This might sound like an impassioned plea for our government to step in and save the British arms industry. It is far from that.  I am not an advocate of arms trading generally. I have written before that I would like to see all of the armies of the world transmuted, over time, into international peace-keeping, disaster relief, and search and rescue organisations. But it is criminally stupid of the government, in an uncertain world, and given that Britain is an island, dependent upon imports of all sorts of things, which in turn relies on shipping lanes being kept open for unmolested trade, to be unilaterally giving away yet more of our capacity to defend ourselves independently. We’ve come to believe that the only enemy we face is now the lone suicide bomber, because of the long, undeclared war against middle-Eastern terrorism (largely a war of our own creation, but that is by the bye for the purposes of this discussion). What if some chancer does decide to (for instance) blockade the channel or the North Sea oilfields? Are we going to re-commission HMS Victory and send it bobbing down the Solent?  Are we going to trundle the Sopwith Camel out of Duxford Air Museum? Are we going to send in the SAS in coracles? Extreme examples, perhaps, but the world is an uncertain place, I repeat. The most optimistic interpretation on the loss of our own independent steel making capability is that we have handed potential enemies a stick with which to beat us, a thumbscrew to tighten.  Once the only source of steel in the world is China just watch the price go up then!

There is also the human cost, of course.  Labour is cheap in China, but even the Chinese state capitalist government can see the virtue in not deliberately creating unemployment and failing to rectify the situation, a lesson which is lost on the Tories here, who tend to believe (a bit like Donald Trump’s views on abortion) that losing your job is your own fault, and is potentially a crime for which the punishment is unemployment.  There are things the government could do. They could, in effect, step in and buy the remaining steelworks from Tata. If they are going to be paying the people who get thrown out of work Jobseekers’ Allowance, and pumping millions into the economically depressed areas anyway in an attempt to create non-existent jobs so that highly skilled steelworkers can become self-employed window cleaners and dog-walkers, why not just keep the factories going.  They can run on, making steel which we can stockpile against the time the country might need it. The government could specify that all public works in this country that require steel should use steel from our own steelworks, and sod compulsory competitive tendering.  If the rest of the world doesn’t like it, they can invade, but only when we’ve built a few more ships.

In reality, though, this set of clowns in charge will not do anything so bold and radical.  Asset after valuable asset has already slipped through their buttered fingers, and been lost to us for ever. Royal Mail. Our shares in the rescued banks.  The Land Registry, put up for sale at 5.30 on the eve of Good Friday, in the hope no-one would notice.  The irony of this is that it actually contradicts the teachings of the blessed St Margaret whom they hold in so much reverence. Whatever else you say about her, Thatcher knew that you can’t sell the same asset twice.  They won’t step in because, as the renowned economist Paul Mason wrote in his recent article this week about the steel crisis, in a rather brutal analysis, “they don’t give a shit”.

It goes deeper than mere uncaring contempt, though they won’t step in because they are still clinging to the fallacy that everything has to make a profit, that the cheapest price is always the best value, that the nation has to “live within its means” and “balance its books” and that to have a nationalised steel industry would be not only anathema to a party that reveres the architect of class war, but also a major loss of face to the present government who would have to admit that market forces, and by inference “austerity” are a busted flush.  That’s what they can’t stand and that’s why they will do absolutely zip, in real terms, to alleviate the situation, while putting up as much fuss and bluster as they can, to confuse the situation.

Increasingly, this is a government of unresolved contradictions, that has given up even the pretence of squaring the circle and giving an outward appearance of knowing what it’s doing. In education, policy is in chaos, the teachers are leaving in droves (and will do so in even greater numbers if the forced Academy status policy is enacted) and yet Theresa May’s Home Office is starting to send home foreign nationals who do not earn more than £35,000 a year – a policy designed purely to appease the likes of the Daily Mail – and some – quite a lot, in fact – of these people we seem hell-bent on deporting have turned out to be teachers, or doctors, thus exacerbating shortages.   The NHS is in crisis anyway, because of Jeremy Hunt’s confrontational stupidity.  In defence, we are cutting and cutting again, including being left without an aircraft carrier for a few years, because of cock-ups in procurement, while becoming embroiled, seemingly, in every overseas conflict going.  By those conflicts, we waste huge amounts of money that could be more profitably used elsewhere, create massive international crises of refugees, then arrogantly refuse to bear our fair share of picking up the pieces.

Still, if it all goes wrong, they can always blame the disabled, those shirkers who should be picking litter for free, or foreigners with their damn desire to come here, get jobs, work hard, pay their taxes, and better their prospects, or the wrong sort of leaves on the line, or the markets, or cheap steel, or Smurfs, or sun-spots.  Or something. It’s never their fault, you see, for undertaking government by abdication of responsibility without the necessary skills and abilities. They know what’s best, that’s why you never hear them say sorry.

So, as I sit here typing this today, on Sunday, a fine and otherwise blameless day, I am contemplating a different landscape.  It’s no wonder that I find myself increasingly harking back to days when I was younger, happier, and healthier, and life looked as if it might actually get better and not worse.  The time I spent in Chichester was one such era, and coincidentally, today is the feast of St Richard of Chichester, or Richard of Wyche as he is also known in medieval times, from his origin in, of all places, Droitwich, where he was born in 1197.

Despite being orphaned at an early age, he managed to regain his inheritance and used it to provide himself with an education at the universities of Oxford, Paris, and Bologna.  At Oxford, he studied under the rather wackily named Robert Grossteste (sometime bishop of Lincoln) and became friends with St Edmund of Abingdon, who tutored him.  Armed with a law doctorate from the University of Bologna, he eventually became Chancellor of Oxford in 1235, and then Chancellor to Edmund, who was, by now, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edmund retired to a monastic life in France, accompanied by Richard, and after Edmund’s death, Richard remained there until after 1243, when he returned to England to become Chancellor to Edmund’s successor at Canterbury, St Boniface of Savoy. Henry III appointed Robert Passelewe to be bishop of Chichester in 1244, but Boniface nullified the appointment, declared it invalid, and appointed Richard instead. This had all the makings of a major cat/pigeons interface, and the dispute went all the way up the chain of command to the then Pope, Innocent IV, who ruled in favour of Richard.  Henry, however, dug his heels in and it was only after he was threatened with excommunication that he gave way and allowed Richard to take the post. For two years, Henry forbade anyone to house or feed Richard. This decree, however, does not seem to have been carried through, because Richard lived in the house of his friend Simon, the parish priest of Tarring, West Sussex, where he divided his time between growing figs and tramping the parish on foot to visit the parishioners

Once installed as Bishop, Richard became known for strict discipline amongst the clergy, aid to the poor, and constant criticism of the corruption of the high clergy and the Royal court. In person, he was an ascetic, wearing a hair-shirt and refusing to dine off silver. He also excluded meat from his diet, having been a vegetarian since his Oxford days.  He was especially harsh on people who attacked the clergy and disrespected church property. When some of the townsmen of Lewes dragged a suspected thief out of sanctuary in the church there, and promptly hanged him, Richard made them dig up the body and pay for it to be re-buried in the chancel, with all due ceremony.  He is often depicted in iconography with a chalice, after the story that he accidentally dropped a chalice during a service, but miraculously, iot landed without anything spilling from it.  

He actually died away from Chichester, at midnight on 3rd April 1253, during a sojourn in Dover where he was delivering, of all things, a plea for a new Crusade, because the Pope had told him to.  His internal organs were removed and buried in the Dover church, and the rest of his body returned to Chichester cathedral and buried in a shrine on the north side of the nave, in an area dedicated to St Edmud. He was canonised in 1262, reburied in a new tomb in 1276, and his shrine became a site for many reputed miracles, until its destruction at the time of the Reformation.

By 1538, when it came to the attention of Thomas Cromwell for the “superstition” and “idolatry” which surrounded it, St Richard’s shrine was almost as popular as Becket’s at Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage. The edict for its destruction was carried out in 1538, but a stubborn legend persisted that one of the men involved in the act, William Ernley, managed to somehow squirrel away the saint’s bones and relics and have them re-interred in the church at West Wittering, down on the coast, where he had connections.  The altar frontal at West Wittering illustrates this link and the legend.

The modern-day shrine of St Richard in Chichester cathedral dates from 1930.  In 1987, the cathedral was offered a relic from the Abbey of La Lucerne in France of an arm-bone that was said to that of St Richard.  The then bishop, Bishop Kemp, accepted it on behalf of the cathedral and it was interred in the shrine in 1991. The modern shrine of Richard features an altar that was designed by Robert Potter, a tapestry designed by Ursula Benker-Schirmer (partly woven at West Dean College at Singleton, just up the road) and an icon of St Richard by Sergei Fyodorov.  

My fondness (if that is what it is) for St Richard probably lies rooted actually in my fondness for Chichester, with its Roman wall, its market cross, its four medieval streets, North, South, West and East, its hidden gems such as Pallant House, and, of course, its cathedral.  Not only does it have a separate bell tower, and is made, improbably of Caen stone which must have taken one hell of a journey to get there in the Middle Ages, but it also has delightfully dotty Anglican trappings such as a Garden of Wiccamical Prebends. I have absolutely no idea what a Wiccamical Prebend is, except that if you made me guess, I would go and look for it in the “plumbing” aisle.

But yes, they were happy days, by and large. Of course, one of the things about being happy is you never truly realise when you are being happy, you only see it afterwards. Compared to now, sitting here in my wheelchair, hammering this out on my laptop, with my petition to toughen the laws against animal abuse stalled at 1100 signatures, and my campaign to write to charities being used as clothes horses for PR photo opportunity purposes by ruthless Tory MPs who cut ribbons to open facilities, then ESA with their other hand, behind their back, I think I must have been happy then. Maybe I am happy now, in my own way. If I count my blessings, I certainly ought to be, compared to some people.  I do have some things in common with St Richard – notably the vegetarianism, and I do, occasionally, read the prayer most associated with him, a prayer I first learned at school, without knowing anything about it, or that I would one day live in the same city as its author.

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

Which you may recognise as what became eventually the song “Day by Day” in Godspell, of all things.

Of course, for me, Chichester cathedral is forever and indelibly linked with Larkin’s poem, An Arundel Tomb.  The title has led many people to locate the tomb, mistakenly, at Arundel, but the title arises from the fact that the tomb, in Chichester cathedral, is of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and his wife Eleanor.  Many people have argued over the meaning of the closing lines of Larkin’s poem, which ends on an enigmatic note, asking if the tomb, with its effigies holding hands through all eternity, goes to prove

Our almost-instinct, almost true
What will survive of us, is love.

Personally, I think Larkin set out trying to hedge his bets and almost by mistake ends up asserting, convincingly, in the enhanced language of poetry something he probably didn’t actually believe in, when he thought about it rationally in the plain light of day.  But I am glad he didn’t tear it up. I find it strangely comforting.

Anyway, if anyone can tell me whether I am currently happy, please address your answers on a postcard to the grumpy old sod in the corner.  For my part, it’s yet another Sunday teatime, time to bomb up the fire, put the kettle on, and prepare for the return of the wandering dogs, and the wandering wife, come to that.  If we stay here, it’s going to be another long and busy week, and if we go away, I’ll probably be taking it with me anyway!

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