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Sunday, 11 September 2016

Epiblog for the Feast of the Holy Cross

It has been a busy few weeks in the Holme Valley. We returned from holiday late last Sunday to find that most of the garden seems to have been eaten by slugs, and the tomato plants have drowned in their waterlogged tub.  We had a good time. As, it seems, did the slugs while we were away.  The various doings and peregrinations of our trip will be duly chronicled, when I get round to it, in a book called Arran Antics: More From The Motorhome Menace, probably next year.

Meanwhile, here we are again, happy as can be, all good pals and jolly good company.  Actually that bit is only partly true.  Some of us seem to be missing – the squirrels, most notably, who have probably moved on to fresh woods and pastures new, as Milton might say if her were here right now, which he isn’t.  Nor have I been especially good company, as I returned to face a mass of shitnastic ostrobogoulousness in the form of the year-end accounts, which have to be submitted by 30th September.  So I spent five days with my head stuck in that.

Matilda greeted our return with her usual insouciance, although I do believe she has missed us, as she is once again being very “clingy” since we came back, and the first night we were home, after we had all bedded down, she roamed the house yowling, for some reason.  No doubt it will all wear off and she’ll be back to ignoring us soon enough.

Spending the thick end of four weeks on Arran has also meant we were blissfully free of television and largely free of the media generally, apart from the odd times we caught the radio news. The right wing rump of red Tories in the Labour party are still hell-bent on self-destruction in their vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn. I tell you one thing. If Owen Smith succeeds in moving the goalposts to such an extent that he actually wins, given that this means Labour will lose in 2020 anyway, I sincerely hope former Labour voters like me will take every opportunity to punish Labour at the ballot box for behaving like rats in a sack when they could have been opposing the Tories for the last year instead of trying to undermine Corbyn. I, for one, won’t forget who they are. Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for de-selection.

Despite the fact that they have a clear run at the moment, and no-one is picking them up on their many errors, inconsistencies, and general lack of direction, Theresa May’s government shows a marked inability to get to grips with “Brexit”. Even coming up with a workable definition of what it means and what comes next seems beyond them. Not surprising, since they never expected to win, even though I predicted all along that they would, simply because their lies were whoppers, delivered on a relentless scale, whereas the “Remain” campaign made the fundamental error of assuming people would vote with their head rather than their heart.  Meanwhile, we’re now in a phoney war, where every bit of bright economic news is seized on by the Brexit lobby as a sign that things aren’t that bad really, after all. Brace yourselves. Winter is coming.

Meanwhile, there’s yet another ceasefire in Syria, or maybe there isn’t by the time you read this, and maybe it will allow humanitarian aid to people who maybe won’t die just yet as a result, although it could, and should, have been allowed to reach them weeks ago but for the US and Russia being engaged in a dick-waving contest by proxy.

The refugee crisis doesn’t seem to have gone away, either. Hatie Kopkins, a woman who has said she would quite happily machine-gun the boats crossing the Med, visited the “Jungle”, the Calais camp, and was apparently tear-gassed. I find this hard to believe, or if it happened it won’t have had any effect, as she has never shed a tear for anyone in her life.  You need compassion for that.

I prefer this description of the camp, from Pamela Meade Lake, who has been running the Hummingbird Project in Buxton for a year now, sending aid to the refugees in Syria and Calais from her kitchen table with the aid of a small but dedicated band of volunteers. This week she reported back from the “Jungle”.

I was lucky enough to visit both Dunkirk and Calais camps over the last two days and have come home tonight with a head full of thoughts and images, with ideas for how we can help more and most of all with respect for the people caught up in this human tragedy.

I met a man who spent more than a week on a boat crossing to Italy from Libya. 680 people started that journey with him, when they finally landed in Europe 350 were dead. Think about that for a minute. Over half the people on the journey died. He didn't.

I talked to someone who walked across Africa escaping a bad situation the like of which we cannot imagine. I learned that smugglers insist all those boarding boats leave their shoes behind.

I learned that Libya is unsafe, a place where even buying groceries can mean you will be robbed at gunpoint for your shopping.

I was welcomed into homes, made as comfortable as possible and I was offered refreshments, kindness and respect. I saw a bed head made from a pallet and loving decorated with painted patterns. I saw gardens, made from crates with plants flowering in the late summer sunshine, and herbs, rosemary and thyme growing outside the kitchen.

The outstanding memory for me, and one that will live with me forever is of the young man I met last night. 

I was sitting in a tent feeling very welcome. Kind gentle men have hung my coat on a peg and begin to teach me Persian. Out of nowhere a young man tells his friends that I remind him of his Mum, a Mum who died in Iraq with most of his family. He asks if he can come and live with me. The tent falls silent as we all think of what he had said. I am touched beyond all feeling. Later we are leaving and there are hugs and smiles from everyone. I touch my boys face he grabs me and we hug. A Mum to son hug, a hug for all the boys who have lost their mums and for all the Mums no longer able to hug their sons. I hope he will be safe this boy I hope he gets the life he deserves. It was a boy like this that brought me to this work and tonight in a tent the circle was complete. If I live to be a hundred I will not forget him.

Amen to that. Amen to that.  Other than that, I was surprised to hear that Jeremy Hunt is still managing to get the Junior Doctors’ collective dander up, to the extent that a series of five day strikes were temporarily on the cards. Ho hum. All because apparently there was a “manifesto promise” to provide a “7-day NHS” (it already is).  What a pity there aren’t more politicians like Jeremy Hunt, dedicated single-mindedly to keeping manifesto promises. In this, as in his lamentable lack of management and negotiating skills, he is unique.

I had my six-monthly check up on Thursday, so I can report that the NHS is still there, at least, still battling on. However, from my point of view it looks like I was being let down easy. Instead of having a six months appointment next March, I have now gone on to an “open appointment” system, where, if I feel I need an appointment, I ring. Given that the local Clinical Commissioning Group is intent on helping the Tories dismember NHS provision in Huddersfield, I have a vision of me calling up next year sometime and a dusty telephone, covered in spiders’ webs, ringing unanswered in an empty office, unheard and unheeded by the contractors who are carrying out the demolition.

Having considered all of the above, it is no wonder that we reached the stage on Arran where we were contemplating asking Katie the cat-nanny to find a large box and courier Matilda up to us.  But we came back, reluctantly and with heavy hearts, because at the end of the day you can run and run but sooner or later, in one form or another, you have to turn around and face the music. We came back via Dumfries and Galloway, and stopped off briefly in Ruthwell, at the church that shelters the Ruthwell Cross.

That was last Sunday, and there was very much a feeling that it was the last day of summer, although nothing had been officially announced. We sat in the car park beside the church, which was locked. It is possible to get the key from the bungalow down the lane, according to the instructions tacked to the door, but we didn’t have time. So we sat and basked in the warm sunshine, Debbie brewed up a cup of tea, and we watched the slow procession of stately cumulus clouds tracking across the blue sky over the Lakeland mountains, forty miles away across the Solway Firth. Then we packed up the teabags, got the dogs back in to the camper, and from Eden wended our solitary way.  The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.

The Ruthwell Cross has been dated back to the 8th century and is extremely well documented elsewhere, so you won’t find me reproducing huge chunks of Pevsner here. I first visited it back in the 1980s, because I had heard that it had, inscribed on it, some of the lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, in runes. I’d studied it at University and I wanted to see the real thing.

This blog is a bit of a fib, actually, because the feast of the Holy Cross isn’t until Tuesday, but because my mind is on crosses today, and it might well be Tuesday before I finish this anyway, and because today’s crop of saints are a rather motley crew, this is the Epiblog for the feat of the Holy Cross and that’s that.

And how am I feeling, sitting here, at the turn of the season, with the nights already drawing in? Well, funnily enough, I’ve been re-reading my Collected Poems by Geoffrey Hill and he has one which sums it up perfectly:

I’m tired now the whole time and yet I wish to
Take up my bed and walk:
To Compostela, for example,
Bush-hat hung round with clamshells on return:
Or ride the Gulf Stream through to Akureyri
And find a hot spring equal to my bulk
Sheltered by palm threes, bowered by frangipani
Or bougainvillia, wallowing in Icelandic
Christian Poetry till the fish come home.

Still, to every thing, there is a season, and who knows, I may yet get there. There’s also a time to every purpose under heaven, apparently. Well, the dogs have had to time to cast stones on the beach on Arran, and had the time of their lives doing it.  Sometimes, they even brought back the stone that had been thrown in the first place. Zak liked the game so much, that when we got back, we found two pebbles that he’d smuggled into the camper and somehow “buried” in the bed.  I’d like to say that I found my faith renewed by the holiday, but to be honest, I am not sure it did. There is a certain re-calibration to be had by comparing yourself to the rocks and the shore and the trees and the mountains. Probably this is why the Buddhists like Arran so much.  But as to sorting out what I believe and why, no, not really.

Now, it feels like the time to reap, the time to harvest, the time when all is safely gathered in.  I suppose there is a certain comfort to be had, sitting by the stove and watching the garden turn to shadows as the autumn pulls the fallow fields up round itself like faded brown blankets, but at the moment, a small part of me is still watching the gannets wheel over Kilbrannan Sound.  Although, for now, we are back.

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