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

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Epiblog for the Feast of St John Boste

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. And, I have to say, a scorching one. It’s been really great to be able to sit outside and feel the sun warming through my old, achy bones. In fact, everyone seems to like this weather. Matilda has been ligging about outside, stretching luxuriously, and only coming in finally at about 11 O’clock when it has cooled off and she decides she wants feeding. Because we’ve had all the doors open all day, Misty and Zak have been wandering in and out at random. In fact, Misty has developed a new game of going out into the garage, out of the back door of the garage onto the decking, and then along the decking to the conservatory door, and back into the kitchen. Repeat as required.

We’ve seen one or two squirrels but by and large, they seem to be away and elsewhere, probably sunbathing somewhere, high up in the waving treetops.
Deb has been keeping herself busy by thinning out some of the trees, partially in an exercise to improve the amount of light, and partly to take out some of the dead wood. This is still an ongoing project, but on three separate days last week I sat out and sawed up the cut branches into smaller pieces, so they could be stored, and used for kindling next winter.

I was interested to see if I could do this, since I know my upper body is getting weaker, but in the end, I managed about an hour and a half on each of the separate days, before I was forced to give up and come in. I kept myself going by drinking pints of lime cordial out of a pewter tankard, and I must admit I found myself wishing it was cider.  Even more amazingly, on two out of the three days, I didn’t suffer afterwards, but on the third day, unlike Jesus, I did find it very difficult to rise again. Judicious application of paracetamol to the digestive system, and thence distribution to the nervous system, solved the problem for a while.

It’s been a great week, though, weather wise, and also I now have nine lavender bushes to go in my formal garden, when we get it built. It reminded me several times of the description of July from The Once and Future King by T H White.

It was July, and real July weather, such they had in Old England. Everybody went bright brown, like Red Indians, with startling teeth and flashing eyes. The dogs moved about with their tongues hanging out, or lay panting in bits of shade, while the farm horses sweated through their coats and flicked their tails and tried to kick the horse-flies off their bellies with great hind hoofs. In the pasture field, the cows were on the gad, and could be seen galloping around with their tails in the air.

In fact, it’s been so good that we have, on a couple of occasions, questioned whether it’s worth the effort to actually spend several days getting the camper ready and going off to Arran. It’s not that we don’t want to go, it’s the effort of getting everything together, and also the fact that it is quite agreeable just having days where, yes, I still have to work, but Deb can be pottering in the garden, or carrying out tree surgery, or cooking on a fire-pit outside on the decking. The problem is of course if we don’t go to Arran, then come that dreary period between November and February, we’ll feel cheated.

So we’re in a bit of a bind, really. A bit like the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet who wrote The Seafarer, where he talks about the cuckoo singing, luring the sailor away from home, and off down the sea-road, since that was the sign that the summertime was here, and thus the time for long sea voyages.

I hope you noticed, by the way, that when I mentioned tree surgery back there, I saved you the tedious joke about wanting to be a tree surgeon but being unable to stand the sight of sap. Maybe I should have made more of it, because there has been very little in the way of jokes this week in the wider world at large. Not many laughs at all.

Theresa May has announced that the UK will not invoke Article 50 and begin the formal process of Brexit from the EU this year. Meanwhile in the background, nastiness rumbles on, on all sides.  A UKIP councillor in Kent made a social media posting calling for remain voters to be killed in order to speed up the process of exit. He later claimed this was a joke, although I guess you had to be there. You never know with UKIP. I get the feeling that the policy making process in this party of the irrelevant is to make some sort of outrageous statement, then, if it’s howled down and ridiculed, claim it’s a joke, but if it isn’t, it goes in the next manifesto. 

Continental snottiness has continued as well, with Spain saying it will veto any Brexit negotiations that don’t hand back Gibraltar, and the French doing one of their many work-to-rules, this time on border checks on UK tourists crossing over from Dover, leading to 10 hour delays. Welcome to the brave new world of Brexit. I don’t know why there is any particular rush to invoke Article 50 anyway. People like me, who voted “Remain” in order to safeguard the economic future of our country, had to put up with 41 years of Brexiteers whinging about imaginary news stories concerning straight bananas and the EU forcing everybody to sing “Baa Baa Ethnic Sheep” or be taken to the European Court of Human Rights (which has nothing to do with the EU, but that’s another story.)

I sense, however, a further souring of the mood, if such a thing were even possible. I ventured to ask, on Boorish Johnson’s Facebook page, if someone could give me a date on which the £350million a week extra will start to be paid into the NHS. It seemed a fair question. A perfectly reasonable question. After all, Old Haystack-Hair had spent the previous three months driving round England in a big red bus with that very same promise plastered all down the side. For asking, though, I was told to stop nit picking, and get on with helping to make Britain great again! Sorry chum, not my circus, not my monkeys. It’s going to be bad enough for me and mine when the economy starts tanking, don’t expect me to clean up your mess as well. Britain was, and is, still, great. It’s just suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. And my definition of greatness doesn’t involve doing up my tie and signing the national anthem. Anyway, I intend to carry on asking the question until someone gives me an answer, although I suspect I already know what that will be.

All this talk of “taking back our country” and “making it great again” has been replicated, indeed even amplified, in the USA this week with the coronation of Donald Trump as the republican party candidate. He and his supporters continue to preach hate and division, leavened with generous dollops of racism and sexism, while outside in the streets, the whole country seems to be a hair’s breadth away from a full scale racial war.

This week in Miami, police shot and wounded a man, who was black, who was lying on his back in the road, with both his arms raised in surrender, and who was shouting “don’t shoot me”.  The reason he was in the road was because one of the people who he cared for, who suffers from Autism, was sitting in the road and would not get up. He had ventured there to try and recover him. When asked about the incident afterwards, the police apparently said that it had been a mistake, and they’d actually been trying to hit the other guy, the Autism sufferer!

I do, seriously, fear for America, especially if Trump comes to power. He is talking about unilaterally withdrawing from NATO. He’s said he wants to make Muslims wear badges so they can be identified in the street. And of course, he wants to build his bloody wall. It’s tempting to laugh about it and say he is a complete nutcase, a fruitcake, but as history tells us, there is a long and depressing list of people who were originally written off as buffoons who then went on to cause untold misery and suffering for millions. I hardly need make the obvious analogy with 1930s Germany.  And so, once again, Oh America my friend, and so once again, you are fighting us all. How did you come, to trade the fiddle for the drum, as Joni Mitchell might have asked at this point, if she were here right now.

Back here, the Labour Party continues its attempts to make itself a completely unelectable laughing stock. The Tories must be chortling into their cornflakes. Angela Eagle has dropped out. Not so much landed as crashed and burned. Now we have Owen Smith, so the Labour leadership contest is starting to look like the choice between Woody Allen and Obi-Wan-Kenobi, except that Woody Allen is a lot funnier, and a lot more talented, than Owen Smith.  And of course, all the while this is going on, the Tories are having a free ride of it, and, Brexit notwithstanding, we now have one of the most right-wing cabinets of recent years.

As it happens, thanks to the mindless “this is what you were doing/saying a year ago” feature on Facebook, up popped, this week, a quotation from John McDonnell, in the context of last year’s election contest. He was speaking in the House of Commons against the Tory proposals on the Welfare Bill.

I make this clear: I would swim through vomit to vote against the Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to. Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it is imposed on people. We hear lots about how high the welfare bill is, but let us understand why that is the case. The housing benefit bill is so high because for generations we have failed to build council houses, we have failed to control rents and we have done nothing about the 300,000 properties that stand empty in this country. Tax credits are so high because pay is so low. The reason why pay is so low is that employers have exploited workers and we have removed the trade union rights that enabled people to be protected at work. Fewer than a third of our workers are now covered by collective bargaining agreements. Unemployment is so high because we have failed to invest in our economy, and we have allowed the deindustrialisation of the north, Scotland and elsewhere. That is why the welfare bill is so high, and the Bill does as all other welfare reform Bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty, not the system.

It’s a sad fact that, fifteen months later, the fruitcakes of UKIP had successfully managed to blame all of these ills, the real causes of which are set out so clearly above, on immigrants, and set off a chain of events that will lead us all into a very uncertain future.

But never mind. Put out more flags. Pippa Middleton is engaged, and we are going to make Britain great again. Yeah, right. Actually, a story was reported from a lake in Suffolk this week which summed up, for me, the very essence of Britishness in many ways. A model boat club’s members are in the habit of sailing their (in some cases very expensive) scale model yachts on the local lake. However, also on the lake lives a swan, in fact, probably more than one, no doubt with attendant cygnets. This swan doesn’t like the model boats, and so far has attacked and sunk eight of them. Outraged, the model boat club has written to the Queen to complain, because by ancient statute, the Queen owns all the swans in England, and there is in fact a member of the Royal Household called the Swan-Upper, whose primary duty is to manage the movement of young swans up and down the reaches of the Thames near Windsor. It dates back probably to Henry VIII, who was quite partial to consuming swan, chips and mushy peas of a Friday night, while he was deciding whose head to snick off the following week.

It really does have it all, though. Outraged middle-class hobbyists, the clash with nature, the appeal to the Crown by ancient statute, the whole storm-in-a-teacup-ness of it all. It would make a great 1950s Ealing comedy, with Alec Guinness as the Hon. Sec of the Boat Club, and Dame Edith Evans as The Queen. No wonder foreigners shake their heads at the sheer inexplicableness of the English character. As if voting for Brexit wasn’t enough. Anyway, my vote is with the swan, but then I have always supported the right to arm bears.

The patriotic spirit, if you can call it that, was also present this week at the funeral of 95-year-old Stewart Cooney, a former gunner in the RA, who served in the Second World War and who had died, alone, with no family, in a nursing home. There was the by-now-common appeal on social media for people to go to his funeral, and a predictably large turnout ensued. I may have been in a cynical and warty mood that day, but I found myself thinking it was a pity that none of the people putting comments like “RIP brave soldier” on Facebook, or turning out to watch the ceremony, didn’t give so much as a stuff when he was alive and probably lonely and alone in the nursing home. But then that’s just me. Actually, though, it isn’t. John Pudney says something very similar in Johnny Head-In-Air:

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far,
For Johnny the bright star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

This is not to denigrate the actions of Mr Cooney in the war, of course. My dad was also in the Royal Artillery, as it happens, which is probably what actually caught my attention about the article in the first place. And, as my dad would no doubt be the first to say, if he were here, and I so wish he was, if it hadn’t been for his generation and the sacrifices they endured to stop Hitler in his tracks, I wouldn’t be able to sit here today making sarky comments about what passes for the government.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a religious blog, although I don’t see, personally, how you can separate religion out from everything else and keep it in a little bubble. Those who express concern about my spiritual well-being will be pleased to know I have managed to do two eikons this week, in between sawing up wood and editing manuscripts. I think my efforts might have had more success if I’d edited the wood and sawed up the manuscripts, but again, that’s just the Grinch in me speaking.

I wasn’t ever intending to do one of them, and doing it delayed me finishing the other, but the news of nine people being killed at random in a McDonalds, of all places, in Munich, by some deranged wingnut with a gun, once more brought into focus for me the question of where was God in all of this. He can’t have nodded, blinked, or turned his back, because he just doesn’t do that. It’s not in the job description. So once more I was forced to conclude, against my will, that it must all be part of some vast plan of which we are unaware. It must be a bloody odd plan, though, or we only see the very bad bits.

Or, of course, there is no God, and bad shit happens at random to good people for no reason. At times, I could almost believe this. But then I think of those all-too-infrequent times in my own life when I have known beyond all doubt that, in the words of Juliana of Norwich, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, and in my darkest moments I cling to this, with all the fervour of a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a lump of flotsam.

Being preoccupied with these sorts of thoughts led me on, in the way my thoughts often do, to the refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, nameless and unmourned.  Ten days ago, the bodies of four adults and two children were washed up on Lesbos, after their dinghy apparently capsized.  Once again, I thought, where was God when this was happening, and I recalled the passage in Luke 8: 22-25 where Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and a storm springs up, and they wake him, and he quells the winds and waters. What if Jesus was in the boat with the refugees? And once I had thought it, I had to paint it. It’s now being auctioned in favour of The Hummingbird Project, a Buxton-based charity that sends supplies and aid out to the refugee camps, so even if they get £10 for it, that’ll be £10 they didn’t have this morning.

Today is, I discover, the Feast of St John Boste, who was a Catholic martyr and one of the “Forty Martyrs” of England and Wales.  When I say “Forty Martyrs” to myself out loud, it is very tempting to hear it as “Four Tomatoes” and get into a sort of Two Ronnies “Four Candles” vibe. I must be in a fey mood, today.

Anyway, the story of St John Boste is a reminder, perhaps, that we shouldn’t be too precious in our haste to condemn the excesses of zealots such as ISIS and the like. We have our own skeletons, and our own cupboards.  John Boste had the misfortune to live through the years of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, when people were often forced to change their religion more often than their underwear. It is almost inconceivable today that all this once happened in the name of religion. I may well have doubts about whether the blood and wine at communion actually does become the literal body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration, but I can safely say I have never felt the slightest urge to wield an axe and decapitate those who say it does.

Of course, it wasn’t just religion. Power, and politics came into it, too. Ever since Henry VIII had decided to go it alone with the Church of England, there was always the threat, sometimes real, sometimes perceived, of a Catholic backlash and invasion.  

Boste was born at Dufton, in what was then Westmoreland, and was educated at Oxford. Following conversion to the Catholic faith, he went to Reims, in France, where he was ordained in 1581.  At a time when being a Catholic priest was a treasonable offence punishable by death, he worked undercover in the North of England, saying mass clandestinely for recusant families and their households.

He managed to carry out this very dangerous undercover existence for just over a decade, but he was eventually betrayed and captured. He was taken to London and tortured, including being put on the rack, and then returned to County Durham, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 24th July 1594. His head was placed on a spike at Durham’s Framwellgate, but later stolen by person or persons unknown.

Boste’s execution seems to have been both brutal and botched. According to contemporary accounts, he sang the Angelus as he mounted the ladder to the scaffold, and his last words were an attempt to assert the primary nature of his mission:

My function is to invade souls, not to meddle in temporal invasions

Unfortunately that wasn’t going to butter any parsnips in a country riven with xenophobic paranoia, where to be a Catholic at the time was automatically to be an enemy of the state. The executioner cut the rope after only a brief time of hanging, and Boste fell to the ground, where the remaining elements of the sentence were swiftly carried out, ending up with his body being hacked into four quarters and his head being displayed for the crowd.

So, yes, ISIS don’t have the monopoly on brutal murder in the name of religion. Obviously 400 years of “development” and “progress” separates us from the grim days of the reformation, whereas the likes of ISIS are still stuck in the bad old days, or so we like to think, at any rate.  It’s never that simple though. In the bad old days of our dark ages, it was the Muslim world that kept the collective wisdom of Greece and Rome safe from being lost, and looking at Donald Trump’s potential vision of America in the future, I think you could quite easily be forgiven for thinking we’d somehow wound time backwards to the era of the Salem witch trials.

Considering it’s been, overall, quite a good week, in that I have achieved things, and we have been blessed with good weather to boot, I should really be in a better mood than I am today. Partly, of course, it’s because of that dilemma I described earlier: not wanting to deprive Debbie of the holiday she deserves, but feeling depressed, oppressed, and apprehensive about the prospect of going away. Well, not the going away, as such, but the mountain of preparation which must fill next week, if we are to get away anywhere at all.

So, next week will be a busy week in the Holme Valley as well, and I also really ought to do something about my petition, which closes on 6th August and still needs 87,000 more signatures to be considered for a debate in parliament.

Right now, though, it’s a peaceful Sunday afternoon, if a little overcast, and I have an eikon to varnish and some lavender bushes to plant out. So I think I’ll leave it there for this week. If you are looking for inspiration, I don’t seem to have that much to spare, but if I were you, I would take solace in small things, these fragments we can shore against our ruin. Meanwhile, I’ll be listening out for the cuckoo.

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