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

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Monday, 19 February 2018

Epiblog for Ash Wednesday

It has been a busy few weeks in the Holme Valley. We seem to be stuck with winter, at least for the time being, as Candlemas Day (2nd February) dawned bright and clear, and, as eny fule kno, according to the old weather rhyme:

If Candlemas dawns bright and clear,
We’ll have two winters in the one year.

One winter is more than enough for me, thanks. If anyone wants my second winter, inbox me, as they say in the realm of Facebook. In the unlikely event of my ever becoming stupendously rich, or even stupendously well off, I intend to do what Robert Graves did and go and live in Majorca, at least from the start of October to the beginning of March.

I could even go the whole hog and marry an unstable female poet who jumps off the balcony, if I wasn’t married to one unstable female already. Debbie’s anger-management failures tend to manifest themselves externally, though. I still cherish the memory of the day she hurled a loaf of bread at my head. I ducked, and it took out a shelf of wine glasses. Thank God it wasn’t frozen, or there would have been a hole in the wall. Or the time she took off her wedding ring and flung it at me. It missed. There was a long moment while the realisation dawned that it was actually Granny Fenwick’s wedding ring from 1911, and then we were both grovelling around on our hands and knees looking for it under the kitchen unit. We found it, dear reader, we found it.

I wouldn’t want to miss the spring in England, though. There is something special, something magical about it. Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there, and all that. In the fixed medieval world (and indeed in our world, since I seem to be living a medieval life at the moment) winter punishes, and spring redeems. And oh boy, I need a shot of redemption, as Paul Simon would no doubt say if he were here right now.

The garden needs it even more than I do. It really has had a pasting and a half this winter. What it needs is a capable person to take it on. I’m a capable person, but can’t take it on. And the last few people who have taken it on, have proved to be anything but capable! Ho hum. Anyway, this year, as in previous years, I have a cunning plan!

Those of you (all three of you) who noticed that the blog stopped being written in 2017, might have vaguely wondered what happened to us all in the interim. The true, but boring, answer, is “not much”. Although there is a great deal of comfort to be had from boredom, especially if, like me, you hate change. We are still all in more or less the same place doing more or less the same things.

Debbie is still lecturing, and growing more and more disenchanted with the world of education, day by day. That’s not unusual. I don’t know anyone involved in education who isn’t plotting their escape, one way or another. Some of them even have a vaulting horse, a secret tunnel, and bags of soil inside their trouser legs. It’s not hard to see why. For every hour she spends on her hind legs getting paid to teach English to people who fell through the school system without touching the sides, she spends four to five unpaid hours either prepping, marking, or filling in incomprehensible bumff so that the College can claim it has ticked all the boxes. Then put it on a shelf, and after seven years, shred it, unread.

Misty is still being a borderline collie. Teamed up with Zak, M-I-L’s increasingly elderly collie cross, she has been yomping across the moors over Wessenden Head through the worst of the winter. There was one day just before Christmas when Debbie came back and the poor dogs were soaked to the skin, shivering, and nithered to the bane, and they made a beeline for the stove where they resignedly steamed themselves back to dog-body-warmth before even considering the contents of their dog-bowls, while Debbie was getting changed. When she came back down, she said it had been blowing horizontal snow in her face for the first two miles up there, then it had started laying and freezing to a crust across the track all the way back. By then it was pitch black. She said, “And, do you know, I didn’t see another single soul, all the time I was up there.” Quelle surprise!

Matilda has now firmly established what I refer to as her “winter” routine. This consists of a brief foray from the recliner chair in the kitchen, into the garden, first thing, the brevity of which is determined by the air temperature and weather outside, and whether or not it is actually raining/snowing/hailing, followed by a slightly-less-brief visit to her food bowl, followed by her jumping on to the foot of my bed and settling down for the day. It’s got to the stage now where I try and mould the duvet into a doughnut-shaped cat bed, and cover it with the Mexican blanket. She’ll sleep there till gone midnight, then, when everyone else has gone to bed, she’ll come through and jump up onto the recliner chair next to the stove, and Matilda and I will surf our way into the early hours before I finally give up, cross another day off the calendar, and head to bed, leaving her in sole command of the kitchen.

Several people asked me, last year, why I’d stopped writing this blog, and to those who actually got in touch with me direct, I told them all the same thing. I stopped because I wasn’t making a difference. I was spending two or three – sometimes more – hours on a Sunday afternoon, hammering the guilty, calling them out, vilifying them in the most coruscating prose I could summon up, and it made absolutely no difference. People were still being forced to visit food banks, Trump was still president, homelessness was growing, and the country I love was growing more savage, insular and bigoted by the day.

So I gave up. Why should I spend three of my remaining hours a week writing songs no one would hear, with words that stretch and strain to rhyme, as Paul Simon would undoubtedly yet again say if he were here right now. So I decided I would put the time to better use. Painting, and stuff like that. Sleeping, and stuff like that. Actually, I have been doing rather a lot of sleeping, and if the Robert Graves option (see above) doesn’t come off, then hibernation might be a viable alternative.

Of course, by not writing about these things, (homelessness, for instance) I haven’t affected the situation either. It’s just as bad as it was, if not worse. Recently, the Daily Mirror ran an article about a former driver to Prince Charles and Princess Diana (as she then was) who is now homeless and living on the streets. I “shared” this story on Facebook and, amongst the various comments I received from my “friends” was one complaining that the article in question used “Too much emotional language.”

Too much emotional language. Because, of course, we can’t get emotional about people sleeping under the railway arches. We can’t get emotional about people bedding down on the canal towpath. We can’t get emotional about people being pissed on by drunks as they try and shelter from the cold in a shop doorway in the precinct. We can’t get emotional. We’re British, don’t you know?

Well, let me just say this. I will get emotional about homelessness. I will continue to get emotional about homelessness. I will get emotional for England, if I have to. I will shout. I will scream. I will stamp my foot. Until someone who has the necessary authority, bloody does something about it!

Requisition the second homes of MPs and turn them into homeless shelters. Make the MPs sleep in a sleeping bag on College Green until homelessness is consigned to the dustbin of history, along with witch-burning, wife-selling, hare-coursing, bear-baiting, and fox-hunting. Then, and only then, will I resume my normal, affable, urbane, well-balanced persona.

So, why am I writing this, then, here and now, when I have apparently decided, along with W H Auden, that “poetry makes nothing happen”? Well. To answer that question, you would need to talk to a gentleman called Matthew Cashmore, or Father Matthew, as he is apparently known. If the name seems vaguely familiar, then you might have been watching A Vicar’s Life on the BBC recently. It’s a fascinating series, focusing on the struggles of the Church of England in Herefordshire, which is apparently its most rural diocese. Previously, all I knew about Herefordshire was cider, Hereford cattle, the Mappa Mundi, and the SAS, which is, you will agree, a fairly potent mixture! Anyway, Father Matthew is one of four vicars featured in the series and he is a big, uncompromising character. Speaking as one of nature’s heavyweights myself, I hope that, if he ever reads this, he will not mind me commenting on his physical presence.

The thing is, if you are a priest, this can often be an advantage. In my days in Brighton, I once had the good fortune to know Father Joseph Flanagan, of St. Mary Magdalen’s church, Upper North Street. He was a big man in every sense of the words. Father Elvins, who was his curate at the time, once told me of the group of American tourists who knocked at the door of the Presbytery:

“Say, do you still have that big Irish priest here?”

“Father Flanagan? Er, yes!”

“Great! What time’s he on?”

Father Matthew always wears a cassock. I recall at college we used to have always to wear undergraduate gowns for formal occasions, and at first we thought these would be an encumbrance, until we realised they would be useful as emergency parachutes, shields in food fights, and camouflage after dark. I imagine Father Matthew is more sober and sensible about his cassock, but I commend these hints and wrinkles to him for what they are worth. About £4. 2s. 6d. I would guess.

Anyway, even if he wasn’t wearing a cassock, you would know he was a priest. Especially when you saw him praying with the hungry refugees at the gates of the food depot set up to try and maintain the lost and scattered former inmates of “The Jungle” at Calais, and then giving them his rosary afterwards. That really got me. I would never give away my rosary (green agate, from Ampleforth) but then I thought well, why not? And it was but a short mental step to thinking, well, this bloke thinks he can make a difference. So why not me? They also serve, who only stand and wait. So, here I am again, binding on about refugees and Syria and homelessness, courtesy of being inspired by Father Matthew. I’m sure you can find him out, if you wish to complain to him about him rattling my cage.

What did he teach me, unwittingly? That you have a choice. You can either roll over and give in, or keep fighting. That everybody has their contribution to make, be it never so humble. That the race is not always to the swift. Things I have to admit, I’d forgotten.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or simple. Last week saw Ash Wednesday, and also St Valentine’s Day. St Valentine is highly questionable, but does at least give us an opportunity for bashful lovers to declare an interest and, if Geoffrey Chaucer is to be believed, for the birds to choose their mates for the coming year. Ash Wednesday is altogether more serious. So far as I know, people do not send each other cards on Ash Wednesday that say “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m mortifying my flesh, how about you?” Maybe they should.

Anyway, I’ve decided what I’m giving up for Lent. I’m giving up copping out. Thank you, Father Matthew. I feel like someone who has been suffering from prolonged laryngitis, who has just croaked their first curse in weeks. It’s been a bad winter, though, and not just for me. One of my friends in California lost everything she had in the wildfires, including her poor old cat, Morris. So you would expect me, since I have once more strapped on my armour, taken down the dusty old shield of the Rudds from its hook in the panelled hall (azure, a lion rampant or, a canton of the second, in case you were interested. No, I thought not.) and prepared to justify the ways of God to men, to come up with some reason why this was all going to be OK and work out well. Wouldn't you?

I can’t. As far as suffering in the world is concerned, I’m in exactly the same position as I was last year when I stopped writing this blog. Raymond Chandler, a writer whose motto was “when in doubt, have someone come through the door with a gun in his hand”, put it much better than I can:

"Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?"

Given the school shooting in Florida last week, you could well be forgiven for asking if God was having yet another bad day. I’ve actually seen a “meme” being circulated where a “concerned student” asks God why he didn’t prevent the suffering, and “God” replies “because I am not allowed in schools these days”.

Bollocks. I’m sorry if you choked on your macaroon when I said that, but bollocks. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. If God is God, nothing is going to keep it out of school or anywhere else, for that matter. God was there in Florida. God was there in the football coach who lost his life shielding others. Why don’t these numbnuts get it?

Sorry, Emotional language, which will never do. Because “emotional language” means we might actually have to confront the problem. To square up to the proverbial elephant in the room.

Still. We should be celebrating. I’m back, and this time it’s personal. There are some things I can’t change. Poor little Morris, lost in the ashes of the wildfires. But on the other hand, there is that point of return. That moment when everything seems lost, done and dusted, when suddenly... and that’s how I feel right now. Morris will never come back in this world, God bless him. But his little catty soul is in cat heaven, and at this point (emotional language alert) I’d just like to say that if heaven doesn’t allow cats, book me a slot in Hades. And the love and the goodness that surrounded Morris will, like the Phoenix from the ashes, like the Mary Ellen Carter, and indeed, like Jesus, allegedly, rise again.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see you back blogging Steve. Strangely I have been thinking of giving up sharing 'political' stuff on facebook/twitter for much the same reasons you gave up blogging. Maybe I will continue now. Ann M