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

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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Epiblog for Midsummer

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. The premature end of summer, which has morphed seamlessly into autumn before we’ve even reached Midsummer’s Day this year, has put an end to gardening and outdoor tasks for now, and the sundial remains unbuilt. Some of the herbs seem to love the rain, however, and the Comfrey in particular has gone from unremarkable seedling to giant Triffid in just a few days. The rose garden is also on the back burner, as Jersey Plants Direct decided that they would beg my pardon, they never promised me a rose garden. Well, they did, actually, but I got a refund instead, which is not nearly as romantic. No barge pole is long enough for some people.

Matilda has taken badly to the deterioration in the weather, pacing about, yowling, and lashing her tail in frustration when it’s absolutely peeing it down, or sitting by the conservatory door and glowering at the squirrels, who seem undeterred by the rain in general, robbing peanuts and bird food out of the dish.

Misty has also been undeterred by the rain in general, although Debbie’s thoughts on having to go “walkies” during what is rapidly becoming the Monsoon season are generally less blasé.  Several days occurred when they both came back drenched, both dried off, both demolished their food, and both fell asleep by the stove. It really is redolent of October, especially in the colder evenings, with the coal banked up.

In the wider world, it has been a week bookended by tragedies, but in between, the filling in the sandwich if you like, it was bizarre beyond the limits of weirdness.  The referendum is now an Alice-in-Wonderland world, completely devoid of reality. George Osborne announced that, in the event of a “Brexit” he would have to levy an emergency budget featuring everything bar a guest appearance by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Why do the remain campaign do this? All it does is make it easy for more sober, more considered, more correct, but equally alarming economic forecasts to be similarly dismissed.  Especially when, if there is a Brexit vote, Osborne will no longer be the chancellor anyway, and in any case, he has missed every target he ever set, so why should anyone believe him now. 

Economically, a Brexit would be a car crash. Worse, it would be a motorway pile up, but Osborne, by crying wolf, has once more made the work of his opponents easier for them.  Because they knew it would never happen, several senior Tories on the Brexit wing of the party immediately issued statements condemning Osborne’s further cuts and proposed additional austerity. Truly, irony has eaten itself.

Sadly, the levity of the week, if you can call it that, was also leavened with some nastiness. The pantomime which is the Euro 2016 football tournament has continued to rumble on.  Off the field, small groups of “fans” from England and Russia have continued their running feud, despite the dire warnings fro the organisers that disqualification is hanging over both teas like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.  Video has also emerged on social media of England “fans” mocking refugee children who were begging in the street, making them catch coins thrown down on the cobbles, and in one case, drink a bottle of beer. On the field, Roy Hodgson finally abandoned his policy of determinedly playing only the second XI, brought on Vardy and Rashford, and, as a result, England accidentally won against Wales.  

In response to the condemnation of the initial rioting, some England fan forums have been quick to point out that it is not all England fans who are acting in this disgraceful way, only a lunatic fringe, who are in no way representative of the England fan base as a whole. To which the obvious riposte is, this is also true of Muslims. Now you understand the difference between a terrorist and a Muslim.

The distinction is lost on people like Nigel Farage, however, who continued to campaign for Brexit in a way which was totally free of all logic and reason. But then, logic and reason have no place these days in the Brexit debate.  On Wednesday, he decided to major on the way the EU affects the British fishing industry, by the simple expedient of renting a river cruiser and leading a flotilla of fishing craft up the Thames in the general direction of parliament.

Despite his apparent espousal of the cause of British fishermen, however, Nigel Farage has only attended something like two of the 42 meetings of the EU Fisheries Committee held since he became an MEP. We know this because it was shouted by no less a personage than Sir Bob Geldof, who appeared in the midst of the Brexit Fleet in a similar, separate, rented river cruiser, complete with loud hailers and stereo speakers blasting “I’m In With The In Crowd”.

It was through the medium of the said megaphone that we learned of Farage’s poor attendance record, possibly the only part of the whole proceedings that fleetingly touched fingertips with what we would normally recognise as reality. Farage, instead of commandeering a megaphone of his own and starting a slanging match (something I would have put money on him doing, actually) retreated under the canopy of his boat, where there were Union Jack deckchairs all set out ready for use, and lit a cigarette.  When questioned about this by a journalist, he said he thought the doctors had got it wrong about smoking. It is not entirely clear if he was joking, or whether he believes, along with Gove, that we have all had enough of experts. For a few bizarre minutes, the entire EU referendum campaign was dominated by two millionaires in rented boats circling each other tentatively on the muddy Thames, one haranguing the other through a megaphone.

Because neither of the leaders of the respective flotillas had inherited the glorious maritime tradition of Nelson, the encounter ended inconclusively, more like Jutland than Trafalgar. While the river boats were circling ponderously in the brackish, turgid water of the Thames, the fishing boats were being “buzzed” by a small number of RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats, powered by outboard motors). They responded by spraying the boats and their occupants with water from the bilges. Amongst those in one RIB, who got soaked in the process (along with her family) was Jo Cox MP, the Labour member for Batley and Spen.

The next day, she must have travelled up to her constituency, to do one of the regular MPs’ surgeries which are held all over the country and give MPs a chance to interact with the people who voted them in.  While she was engaged in this, in Birstall Library, my wife was busy teaching her outreach class in a location less than a mile away, and based on the very estate where the alleged suspect is said to own a home.  Had it not been the exam season, Deb might well have hung around giving feedback, as is her usual custom, and had she done so, could have probably been transiting the area just as Jo Cox was being shot and stabbed in the street. I shudder to think of it. As it was, Jo Cox’s murder was taking place just as Debbie rolled safely back into the driveway at home, but it was still too close for comfort.  I couldn’t begin to think what it must feel like to answer a phone call and be told that your wife has just been shot and stabbed in the street. But that is what happened to Brendan Cox on Thursday afternoon, and he then had to break it to their children.

But who is responsible for Jo Cox’s death? It all depends what you mean by “responsible”.  There has been a definite attempt, in the two or three days since the event, by those who have come to realise that their hate and fear mongering may have contributed to the state of the assailant’s mind, to downplay any “political” aspects to the killing. Normally, when I hear that sort of apologia being uttered, I immediately think that what they are really saying is “Oops, I have been busted, and now the shit is about to hit the fan.”

Thus, we find that the people who are saying this sort of thing the loudest, like a repetitive mantra whose chief aim seems to be to drown out any discussion, are those who don’t like being called out on their actions in the referendum campaign, actions which may well have pushed someone vulnerable enough to be susceptible to the febrile atmosphere of hatred and xenophobia, to try and do something about it.  The same things have been said (about “keeping politics out of it”) on a couple of other online forums I read – one about the proposed closure of the A & E Department at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and one about the flooding in Calderdale.

In both cases, the people who are saying “let’s keep politics out of this” are people who probably voted Tory in the election and are now embarrassed that it is coming back to bite them on the bum. Them, and the rest of us.  So any mention of Tory meddling with the NHS and the destabilising effects of PFI cannot be discussed. Any mention of Tory cuts to the Environment Agency putting flood defences in peril cannot be discussed. So it is with Jo Cox, as those with most to lose by being identified as part of the process that led up to her killing fall over themselves in their haste not to be implicated, and any mention of the political dimensions to the death of Jo Cox, cannot be discussed.

The assailant was a mentally disturbed loner, end of.  But I’m sorry, that is not the end. The same people who are saying this are probably the ones who would be the first to be baying for blood if it had been, say, Boris Johnson who had been shot and stabbed in the street by an assailant shouting “Allah-uh Akhbar”, instead of “Britain First”.  But it seems that the rule of thumb is Muslim assailant = ISIS terrorist, whereas white, right wing assailant = mentally disturbed loner.  In the week’s other tragedy, which happened as I was writing my blog last Sunday, the mass shootings in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, there is a similar double standard, the irony there being that the individual in question may well have been first and foremost a disturbed individual with a thing about gay people, but in this case he was appropriated by both ISIS and Donald Trump (for different reasons, but still quite an achievement) for political ends, as an example of “Muslim Terrorism”.

The people who killed Lee Rigby were also mentally ill, but that didn’t stop the likes of Britain First using the case to tar all Muslims with the same brush, and misappropriating the posthumous “approval” of Lee Rigby from beyond the grave, against the wishes of his family.  Mr Boot, meet Mr Other Foot.  Britain First, the political group, were frantically backtracking all day Friday, claiming that even if the assailant had shouted “Britain First”, it could have been part of a longer, rhetorical, question along the lines of “shouldn’t we put Britain first?” Well, if you believe that, tell me again how you feel about the tooth fairy.  In court on Saturday, charged with the crime, the alleged assailant apparently said “Death to Traitors! Britain First”, which I would say puts him firmly in the “Brexit” camp.  When I wrote, in last week’s blog, about the exchange witnessed by one of my friends in the supermarket, where a remain voter was jocularly referred to as a “traitor”, little did I suspect just how far that particular canker had spread.

The prime burden of responsibility for the death of Jo Cox  falls upon the person who killed her.  A man has been arrested and charged, but not yet tried or convicted of her murder.  There has been much speculation about whether the suspect in custody has links to far right groups or not, and whether he shouted “Britain First” as he stabbed and shot his alleged victim.  I am trying to be careful with my nomenclature and terminology here as I have no wish to prejudice future legal proceedings and make it easy for a smart defence counsel to point to the overwhelming speculation on social media as a means of his client being denied a fair trial.

Any tragedy, any catastrophe, usually has multiple causes. It is rare for one single cause to be the root of it. The Space Shuttle that blew up in mid air over Florida was the result of cheap rubber “O” rings and freezing temperatures.  Hillsborough was a combination of a late surge in fans being ineptly handled followed by a failure to appreciate the gravity of the situation and a consequent delay in deploying the emergency services. The Titanic suffered from the bad luck of scraping an iceberg rather than hitting it square on, and then the loss of life was exacerbated by inadequate use of the lifeboats, such as there were on board, and other shipping mis-interpreting her distress rockets as fireworks. In Jo Cox’s case, it featured at least all of the following, plus perhaps other factors of which we are, as yet, unaware.

Unprecedented levels of hatred and xenophobia, especially against refugees and immigrants, being whipped up in the referendum campaign by the lunatic fringe of the Brexit campaign. However uncomfortable that may make them feel, and personally I hope it does, the whirly-eyed zealots of the far right can't escape *some* responsibility.

A local MP with a high profile commitment to helping refugee causes, who made a point of being "present" in the community that elected her.

Seemingly, someone with a number of issues (as yet unknown and specified) which may well have been inflamed by the two above

The fact that (unlike cabinet ministers or politicians in other countries) our MPs by and large are accessible through the means of surgeries and the like and are not, generally, chauffeured around in armoured limos and surrounded by bodyguards.

The killing of Jo Cox is bound up with multiple strands of irony. By several accounts, the man who has been charged with the offence was a “loner”, and fighting the effects of loneliness was one of the causes which she cared passionately about. If he is indeed found guilty, he may misguidedly have killed someone who was trying (albeit indirectly) to help him, and people like him.
Then there is the issue of the way in which the public view their elected politicians.  You couldn’t throw half a brick on the internet on Friday without hitting someone who was singing the praises of our hard working, diligent MPs. Previously, these MPs were the people who were described (often by me) as lying, venal and corrupt.  I, too, have been guilty of making flip jokes about there not being enough rope, or enough lamp posts in Westminster, especially at the height of the expenses scandal, but again, as with Muslims, as with members of far-right groups, there is a whole spectrum of behaviour and belief, ranging from respectable to completely-off-the-scale four stops beyond Barking and well off the bus route.  They are not all the same.There, I have said it. I've recanted.

The irony here being that, by all accounts, Jo Cox was a diligent and a hardworking MP, proud to serve the community that bore and raised her, and happy to be able to make a difference for her constituents.  She wasn’t some purple-faced old buffer with a glassy stare who only turns up at Westminster once in a blue moon and is rarely seen in his constituency except when he is installing his ornamental duck house, claimed for on expenses, on his moat. One bad apple does not imply a rotten barrel, with MPs, nor with England fans, and, sadly, probably not even with Britain First, though the irony of people deriding their rather hurt social media postings to the effect that the whole group should not be judged by the actions of one individual was totally lost on them.   

But in the case of UKIP, they cannot evade the fact that, on the very morning Jo Cox was killed, Nigel Farage was busily unveiling his latest referendum poster, which showed a winding river of brown people stretching back into the distance and over the horizon.  Superimposed on the image were the words “Breaking Point”.  I caught a brief clip of him being interviewed at the unveiling. He was speechifying, as usual, and he was actually saying “all these people will end up at Calais and they will all be getting passports and coming here…” or words to that effect.  As it happens, the image was a stock photo of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.  Who knows what really happened to these people in the picture.  Most of them are probably in refugee camps in Lebanon, Macedonia or Turkey. Some of them will have drowned.

But to  Farage, it’s all grist to his racist mill. And the scary thing is, people are believing him.  A chilling article by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian this week (not my normal fare, but all sorts of things have been popping up in my news feed after the Jo Cox murder) reported on an MPs’ surgery by Margaret Hodge in East London, where the subject of Brexit came up. Every UKIP lie was produced in the course of the discussion, and each one was debunked by Hodge, and demolished. But at the close of the meeting, people were still saying they were going to vote leave, in the face of all facts and reason.  Facts no longer matter. Because it’s a vote with the heart, not the head, and UKIP have captured the emotional argument with their unsupported assertions and now, with the latest poster, sadly, with their naked racism. 

By and large, I am pretty hard on UKIP members, but I guess, like England football supporters, Muslims, MPs and the members of far-right groups, there is a broad spectrum of membership there also, ranging from people who simply feel disillusioned about the state of the country and (wrongly) believe UKIP can fix it, to obsessive racist loners with a bee in their bonnet about refugees who might have just seen Farage’s latest poster on Thursday morning, and decided, spurred on by its message, to play their own part, by taking direct action.  And to my mind, if that is proven to be the case, ever, then UKIP, although they cannot be held directly responsible, are at least culpable, and guilty of recklessness.

Farage was offered the chance on morning TV to express sympathy for the death of Jo Cox and instead used the interview to defend his racist poster and paint himself as a victim of political hatred. That really does tell you all you need to know about him.  So well done, Mr Farage, with your odious quasi-nationalism. It starts with the waving of flags, and ends with a woman lying dead in the street.

What do we do about this, though? I know it’s a cliché, often spouted at such times, but what would she want? Feeling very angry, on Thursday night, I signed an online petition calling for the referendum to be postponed. On mature reflection (as it says in all the best wills) I wish I hadn’t. Because if democracy means anything it means allowing the processes which underlie it to happen, and let the chips fall where they may. Only holding elections when you are sure of getting the result you want is the sort of thing they do in Russia and China, and I think we’re better, in our political traditions, than that. Not much better, of late, but I still think the referendum should go ahead, and let the chips fall where they may.

One area which does bear some scrutiny, though, is the status of the group Britain First. As I said, I am not, generally, an advocate of banning things, but maybe it is time to make an exception with this organisation.   Britain First is an organisation that consistently pumps out vile, anti-Muslim propaganda, and seeks to paint all adherents of that faith with the same brush. In the past, it has carried out “direct actions” including Mosque invasions.

I am well aware that Britain First is merely a decorative border on the edge of the  lunatic fringe of the right-wing movement in general in the UK, in the same way that a group like, for instance, Al-Mujaharoun was the lunatic fringe of Islamic opinion. However, we were quick enough to disband and proscribe that organisation, and similar ones, and I think that, in terms of equality of response if nothing else, the time has now come to do the same to Britain First.

I realise that there is a counter argument which says that banning solves nothing, and it is better to keep these people in plain view, where their actions may be more easily scrutinised for unlawful activity, but the precedent has now already been set, and for me, it is now a case of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”.

Britain First, even if not directly responsible for the death of Jo Cox (and I accept that no organisation can control the action of its supporters 100%, even if the suspect did turn out to have been a member, which is still an open question) are nevertheless, with others, generally responsible for stirring up the poisonous mixture of hate and xenophobia which is currently killing off all of the British values of tolerance, compassion, and sympathy for the underdog which we used to hold so dear, and which made this country the special place it once was.

It is the feast day of various saints today, including the splendidly named St Deodatus, but somehow it doesn’t seem right, this week, to be writing about ancient church history when events have taken place which have challenged the very ideals of Christianity and the very roots, indeed, of faith. Well, my faith, anyway. Where was God when Jo Cox was being killed? Why is evil constantly triumphant? What possible part of a planned universe managed and run by a benevolent caring God who allegedly loves mankind so much that he was willing to sacrifice a part of himself in the form of his only son, to save mankind, could allow this to happen?

The standard answer (theologically, although I paraphrase) is that we live in a fallen universe and we have free will. So although God must have known, being omniscient and omnipresent, that Jo Cox would have been killed, and indeed knows the minute and the hour for all of us, he did not do anything to stop it happening, for reasons best known only unto the mind of God.

This has never made much sense to me, and has been a major stumbling block all my religious life. Especially since God, faced with a blank canvas, could re-shape and re-frame the world any way he wanted.  I accept that I will never know the  mind of God, at least not in this lifetime, and I accept that I have occasionally had experiences, which some may call “religious” where I have – inexplicably, and in a way it is impossible to explain – felt that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” but even so, God’s mind must be bloody strange if something like the death of Jo Cox is acceptable to it.

The other often-advanced argument is that some good will come of the death of Jo Cox. Well, that may well be so. I know there is a tendency when someone young and bright dies before their time, especially a young woman, to re-write their past in a more “saintly” light. It’s the Princess Diana syndrome. Jo Cox didn’t feature particularly prominently on my radar before her death, but from what I have gleaned since, she seems generally to have already been a force for good, so why God felt it necessary to allow her death to create “good” out of it is a mystery to me. You got me there, Big G.

It is tempting, after thoughts like those, to fall into the pit of thinking that nothing has any meaning, and the world is truly random and chaotic, part of a Godless universe. I suppose the only mitigating factors, the consolations, are things such as the bravery shown by her sister in reading out her very moving public tribute, the way in which Jo Cox’s assistant tried to comfort and help her as she lay dying and the attempts by the 77 year old ex-miner, the have a go hero who got stabbed for his trouble, to prevent the murder taking place. Always look for the helpers, as the saying goes.  As Jo Cox herself said, in her maiden speech:

Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

In a sense, she was merely echoing John Donne, four hundred years earlier, in his Meditation VII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Odd as it may seem – maybe because it was so “close to home” in some ways – I do feel “diminished” by the death of Jo Cox, a person I never knew. Oddly and personally diminished, an additional dimension to the sheer anger at the fact it happened and the despair about the way in which the country is going.  Maybe we just have to cling on to the fact that people tried to help, and that, despite the heart growing brutal in some cases, there is still more that unites us than divides us.

Next week, for good or ill, is the referendum. At times like those we have endured in the past few days, I tend to find myself rummaging mentally though the ragbag of poetry I keep in my head, looking for a talisman, a touchstone, that will help me to make sense of it all  Poetry makes nothing happen, as W H Auden once memorably said about the Spanish Civil War, but it does help sometimes in the struggle to make sense of those times when bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason.

For the last few weeks, thinking especially about the climate of hate engendered by the Brexit camp, I have had The Stare’s Nest By My Window by W. B. Yeats going round and round inside my head. The poem was written in the bloody aftermath of the civil war which led eventually to partition in Ireland in the 1920s.  The bees outside Yeats’s window at Thoor Ballylee are building a hive in the remains of an empty nest left by starlings, but on another level, Yeats is using the poem as a heart-felt cry for reconciliation, and for people to co-operate, to build something new in Ireland out of the wreckage of war, in the same way that the old nest is being re-used by the bees.

We have fed the heart on fantasies
The heart’s grown brutal on the fare
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love. O honey bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare!

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there is going to be a massive need for people to all pull together and make things better. If we vote to leave, economically, that task is going to be well-nigh impossible. Even if we stay in, it should be a massive wake-up call for Cameron and Co and the EU generally. The status quo is not an option.  I fear, however, that we may be in for dark times ahead. If we vote to leave, and – as they almost certainly will – things get worse, not better, for the people who voted to go, in the misguided hope that there would be more hospitals, more schools, and fewer brown people, and these people wake up on June 24th and don’t find themselves basking in a warm glow of sovereignty, whatever that means, and its just as difficult to see your GP, the roads are just as busy, the schools just as crowded, and the economy is tanking, so there is even less money to fix these things, eventually, that anger will surface, and find a way to manifest itself, to the detriment of us all.

And of course, next week there is the Midsummer Solstice, and everything starts to tip back down towards autumn, towards decay, shorter days and colder nights. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date” as the Bard has it.  Somehow, today, this Sunday teatime in England, with clouds overhead and a light rain falling, seems to be the eye in the hurricane, the calm before the storm. In what is laughably described as my spare time, last week, I took to painting yet again, and also to baking. So I am going to close now, and make what seems to me to be the only sane response to the mad world I seem to be trapped in. I’m going to paint an eikon, and then make a strawberry flan. Or vice versa.

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