Friday, 13 January 2017

By the light of the silvery moon

The other night, there was a full moon, large and looming in the sky. It was cold, and I was tired after a lot of walking, but I dropped off my baggage at home and went out to the park to sit on a bench and look at it.

The night sky is full of stuff, but nothing captivates like the moon. The stars are just so many lights, of varying brightness and even (or is this just my eyesight?) colours, but the moon is a place where the Clangers and a soup-dragon could live.

One of the unforgettable moments in my life was whilst staying with friends at Montauk, the last, and naughtiest, of the Hamptons on Long Island. I decided to meander back from an emergency run to the "Liquor Store" along the beach, and was met by the most glorious sight, as the sun was setting, and the moon rising, over the water of the Atlantic Ocean. Long Island is famous for its sunsets, but this was a double-helping of celestial beauty, as both sun and moon shimmered their reflection into the breaking waves. I stood there a good long while, and the moon was firmly in command, the sun long since sent to waken others elsewhere around our little globe, by the time I clanked home with my swag.

The astrological witchcraftmongers say that the moon, and silver, are things associated with my birth sign (Cancer - not a very popular word in my life just now) and it's true that I have inherited from both my parents a liking for silver things. When I was ordained priest, I was given by friends a Pyx, a silver box for carrying consecrated wafers to take communion to the sick, and by the parish, a tiny silver chalice and patten for home communions. They sit on my desk as I type.

What's charming about silver is that, unlike gold, it tarnishes - oxidizes in the air and starts to look grey or even black. It's soon polished off, and if you wear a ring, you do it almost automatically. When I collected coins, some of the silver seemed to be exceptionally beautiful - I remember an Edward VII florin, and a George V sixpence that was my Auntie Margaret's in particular. I made a point of acquiring a "silver penny", England's basic currency for centuries, and the reason why a pre-decimal pound had 240 pennies - that's how many you could smash out of a pound of silver. Until I started to look into it, I was sure that sterling silver - 925 parts per 1,000 was the same as sterling gold, but I was wrong. Gold sovereigns are made of 917 parts per 1,000, so silver currency is in fact the more pure, and you can see from the coins themselves that it is, even so, considerably more hard-wearing.

Maybe that was the idea behind the "Silver Ring Thing", an American Fundamentalist idea to persuade teenagers that sex is a bad thing - to mark their commitment to chastity before marriage, they would be given a silver ring they could discard when they acquired the gold of a wedding ring. Marcus Brigstocke commented "if they want to wear a ring to show the world they aren't having sex, why can't they just get married like the rest of of us?"

Of the trials and tribulations of my broken wrist, the worst, beyond pain, discomfort, and incapacity, is not being able to wear my silver engagement ring. A thoughtful nurse suggested removing it before my arm was put in plaster. Three months later, my finger is still too swollen to put it back. We were in town in Londrina one afternoon on my first visit to Brasil, and HL asked if I preferred silver or gold. Then he nipped into a jeweller's and a few moments later, the rings were ready. They are engraved with the date "01 - 07 - 2005" and mine has his name, and his has mine (or his would, if he hadn't lost it). We didn't wear them at first, and thought we might exchange them when we were both back in England - he was staying on longer to be with his family when I had to return to work - but at Sao Paulo airport, on the 12th of July, under the city's smog and the watchful gaze of the black urubu vultures circling overhead, we exchanged them just before I came home.

The silvery moon makes me think of these fond things, and also of this silly song:

"By the light of the silvery moon,
I want to spoon, to my honey I'll croon love's tune,
Honeymoon keep a-shining in June,
Your silvery beams will bring love dreams, we'll be cuddling soon,
By the silvery moon."

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2017
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I'm gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.

Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.

Joyce Grenfell

Monday, 9 January 2017

Mrs May & Mental Health & A Little Walk

"Fine words butter no parsnips", as Kenneth Clark (OM)'s grandmother used to say, and Mrs May has talked much about mental health, and injustice, and ignorance and prejudice, and so on. All very good. No money has been offered. So, nothing will happen.

But I'm not a knocker, I have an idea, and I wish to share it with Mrs May and those involved in our benefits and fiscal system. Yes, I know that's not about health, but when it comes to mental health, your financial security is absolutely essential, whether it's knowing your home is secure, or the freedom from the fear of the bailiffs, and the terrifying brown (increasingly white, the tricksy devils) envelopes that accumulate on your doormat, and remain unopened precisely because you can know exactly what's in them, and you can do nothing about them.

Work is one of the three keys to fulfilment and mental health (according to Jung - the other two are love, and faith) and work for people with mental sickness is very tricky. I'm guessing, much though I'd like to belong to a more interesting and exclusive club, that the most common form of mental sickness is mine, depression. There was a time when we could be signed off by our GPs for years on end and receive Incapacity Benefit to live on, and help with housing and council tax costs, because we were deemed unable to work. Our GPs had made a judgement that whilst there might be some work we could do, some of the time, the requirement to find full-time work, or face constant sackings (and evictions and deeper poverty) for declining into sickness again, or endlessly to seek jobs we wouldn't get, would actually make our health worse, not better.

Then Atos and Maximus came along. Atos is a French-owned, for-profit, company that managed the "work capacity test", which tested not whether you could hold down a 40-hour-a-week job, but whether you could do any work at all. My mental health was subjected to the intense scrutiny of being asked whether I could walk across a room. I happened to be using a walking stick that day, as I'd just sprained my ankle. I don't think the examiner had paid attention to her notes, nor to my GP, nor my psychiatrist. Like most people sent to Atos, I was deemed fit to work, because my mental state didn't stop me walking across a room (are there many jobs which solely involve walking across rooms?). And like most people thrown off Incapacity Benefit and onto Jobseekers Allowance and fortnightly - or more frequent - attendance at the Labour Exchange, I didn't contest it. I didn't have the emotional energy. I figured I could live on £30 a week less.

And this is where the Labour Exchange ("Jobcentre+" - never could work out what the "plus" was) and Maximus come in. The government makes you sign on for a year, and then the toughnuts are sent to Maximus, an American-owned for-profit company which claims to find people work. I had to walk into town 5 times a fortnight - it's 4 miles each way - once to sign on, and twice to look through the online job columns of "Daily Information" which I could as easily read at home. And I had to apply for jobs. Lots of them, whether or not there was the faintest chance of getting them, which wasted not only my own time, but my non-potential employers'. Also, if a realistic job came up in an outfit to which I'd made a futile application for another, having a distinctive name, I reckoned it was actually queering my own pitch to write such rubbish.

They don't actually help you, unless you are illiterate. I asked to go on a computer course - they didn't make me, and I went, but like everything else, it was provided by a for-profit company, "Learning Direcct" and tailored very precisely to a particular bunch of products. They provide computers. Their computers do not give you access to websites of things like churches - like the church for whom I now work. Sometimes their staff get ratty - "I could force you to come in five times a week", said handsome young James, one time. "And I've forgotten more than you'll ever know, you ignorant little pig", I didn't respond. You have to be kind and to charm, even when the internet is down and you've walked four miles for nothing.

And here's a little thing - the reason I don't need antidepressants is that I walk. I discovered this for myself - walking makes me feel better. But walking needs to be at least in a neutral mood. Going somewhere horrible to be abused, isn't a therapeutic walk. Idle meandering is the best walking of all. Going there was hell, coming home was OK. My psychiatrist said "so really, they are getting in the way of your cure". And they were.

The job I got, as I said, was with a church. It was a part-time one. I figured after 8 years out of paid work (not idle - I'd been walking, reading, researching, writing, caring for cats, shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, tending to plants, burying the dead, and trying to be a friend, all along) that a 40-hour week would send me back to madness. They told me my new job would leave me £70 a week better off. They lied. In a way, I'm glad they lied because the job is great, the people are kind, there are things that really matter to do and I'm getting them done. But low-paid, or part-time, work doesn't reward you financially.

The lie was because they didn't factor in council tax, for which you receive 100% remission whilst on incapacity benefit or JSA, and for which you cop the whole bill no matter how little you earn when you're in work. So, for a time, my council tax was 9% of my income, when I paid no income tax at all. This month I am having a pay rise. This now means I do pay income tax - and my actual income will fall. It's only 12p a month, and the treasurer says he's blowed if he's changing the standing order for such a pettyfogging amount. But the system is wrong.

So, Mrs May, if you really want to help us, let us work a half ticket when we're not the full ticket. Tax us fairly if we find work. Don't bully us into applying for jobs we'll never get. And let us walk - where we want to go - because actually, in this matter, we really do know best.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2017



Sunday, 8 January 2017

Homelessness and the Housing Crisis

At the Baptist church where I work, plans are afoot to make one of our halls available for rough-sleepers to be warm and safe when the freezing weather returns. It's called the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) and it will involve a major upgrade of our fire alarm system so that we have detectors to counter-balance the risk of human error if a fire occurs. There's a certain irony in being prevented - for the time being - from trying to stop people freezing to death in the streets, where it is freezing every year, because they might burn to death by fire in a building that has never had one.

As someone at the beginning of his sixth decade who has only ever lived in other people's houses - my parents', my colleges, friends' and private landlords' - the question of housing is an important one to me. The few people we see sleeping rough on the streets are not really the essence of the housing crisis, and many of them are there not because there is no space for them, but because they really don't want it, have never seen the point, or have made themselves so obnoxious to others that they are not welcome. The housing crisis is more to do with the immense expense of accommodation - 66% of my normal income is rent; for the next few months because of council tax arrears being taken from my wages, 82% - and the over-crowding this causes. Dwellings which were designed for two parents and two children to live comfortably are now commonly occupied by five adults; boxrooms have become homes; and routinely adults into their 30s and even 40s stay with their parents because they cannot afford to exercise their right to a home of their own.

And I do believe it's a right. For those with particular needs, it's a right which should be met to the highest and best possible standard. For those who work, it should be affordable (not the government's fake definition of "affordable" as 85% of the inflated market price. For those without identifiable needs, and who won't work, a decent basic minimum.

There are various reasons why this doesn't happen. The "right-to-buy-at-discount" scheme for council houses is a part of it, as is the embargo on councils using even the bargain-basement money they raise from this to build more. This means the social housing stock is much depleted, and in many parts of the country, there is no alternative than the private landlord - which for the owner, is money for jam, capital appreciation plus income, for negligble effort. But maybe a bigger element is the banks. Governments have tried to encourage "first-time buyers" (this is not a literal description, they need to be younger than me) to get mortgages, and the banks have quietly sucked up this donation of effortless profit thanks to the taxpayer. More council housing would put the money in the hands of the councils, not the bonus-makers in the banks.

And then there's the cultural and demographic shift. In the 1960s when my parents bought their first house, a man, on his own, doing an ordinary job, could pay a mortgage with one week's wages a month, and afford for his wife to stay at home and look after their children. This is no longer possible. A friend of mine in the 1970s, when she went to buy her first house, was required to bring a man - her brother - to stand surety for her. That's all gone. Now women can have mortgages, and given that most people become couples, the banks, and the estate agents, have astutely worked the market so that two incomes should be necessary to afford the price of a mortgage, and up go the prices accordingly - no extra work, but the percentage yields a bigger absolute profit on the deal. Once the mortgages go up, the private landlords, especially the buy-to-let characters, cash in on the deal like vultures.

Economically, the problem is that this is dead money. Most British people have next to nothing in the way of savings. They expect to retire at 65 or 66 or 67, and then be supported by whatever work pension they have, plus the state old age pension, unti they die 20 or 30 years later. For care in the frailty of physical decay or dementia, there is nothing set aside - because it's all going on bricks and mortar actually paid for years ago, which produce no income, and create no work. A home is not an investment, and the expense of a home stops most people from making proper investments in their future.

The problem is easily solved, but there is no political will to do it. "More council houses mean that more people will vote Labour", say the Tories. Labour doesn't have an idea in its head. Only the Greens have social housing as a commitment - and they have one MP. It would be a disaster for the banks if a government did address the problem - as happened in the early 1950s when Harold Macmillan as housing minister promised, and delivered, 300,000 new homes a year. And he delivered them. The Tories have changed. Why upset their friends the bankers? Although they could make new friends of the builders, who actually produce something useful, and the local authorities, housing associations, and almshouses, who make it available at a reasonable rate.

But even if a government were one day to see sense, and re-order our economy so that it meets the people's need for housing at reasonable levels of profit for providers, that won't solve the rough-sleeping problem. When I worked for the Oxford Night Shelter a decade ago, I came to understand that for most of our inmates, they weren't homeless in the sense that you or I would be if we were evicted and had nowhere to go. They had never known a home, never known in childhood the security of warmth and nourishment and a bed where you were safe from predators. The ethos of the place was to restore them to a bourgeois normality to which they were strangers. Sometimes it worked, more often it didn't, and all we could do was keep them warm and fed - which was all most of them wanted - for over £300 a week. I have never been able to afford £1,200 a month in rent, but that's what the state - then - forked out for the care we provided. Some only needed food and a room, others benefitted from personal attention to more serious and deeper needs.

If, as an economy, we squandered less on this over-priced, racketeered, commodity, there would be more to invest in the real needs of those homeless people who might be able to grow into what the ruling class consider more normal lives. And for the "gentlemen of the road" at least warmth and food. And adults in their 20s and 30s and 40s wouldn't be infantilised by having to live with the parents into their middle years, and anyone prepared to earn would be able to save for old age.

It's win-win - except for the banks, who must lose. But after what they did to us in 2007-2008, they deserve to, they are not our friends.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2017






Thursday, 5 January 2017

IN DEFENCE OF MODERN MARRIAGE


To start with, there’s no such thing as “gay marriage”. Not because it’s not allowed yet, but because it makes no sense, and it’s not what anyone wants. The government is suggesting that the rights and duties and legal language of marriage be extended to include gay couples. Nothing new is being proposed, unlike in 2005 when the Civil Partnerships Act became law. Just that what is already there should be understood more broadly, to include all citizens who wish to make a binding commitment with one other person.

This should be the occasion of rejoicing, not least from the Christian churches, which argue from their Scriptures that “God is love”. As an elderly monk – himself a grandfather – said to me one time in America, “there’s so little love in the world, the least you can do, when you see it, is bless it”. But the Church of England and Roman Catholic hierarchies seem unable to do this. Cardinal O’Brien finds the idea grotesque. They seem united in finding the marriage of gay people deeply threatening to the reality of other people’s marriages. This intrigues me. Obviously, there isn’t a Mrs Cardinal, but I wonder if, for instance, Lady Carey, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, actually feels that her marriage to George would be undermined if gay couples were acknowledged as married? Would the Cardinal start to think, “oh, if gay men could marry, I might not be a cardinal?” Would Lord Carey think “if gay women were allowed to marry, I might never have found a wife?” Is this what they are worried about? Are their own commitments – to celibacy or to marriage - built on such frail foundations? Of course not, they will say. And I agree. So, why should the rest of their heterosexually- or celibacy- inclined peers react any differently?

And then we have the children. The Roman Catholic Church has at least the virtue, if such it is, of consistency on this one. They detest birth control, and regard it as unnatural. Far better that people abstain from sex if they have enough children already, or, if they have not “the gift of continency” than that they should have still more unwanted children, because, after all, sex must have its price. And, what the hell, why not make the children pay it? It’s true that most, but not all, gay couples will not have children. Some do. There is no evidence that those children go without, either emotionally, or materially, and evidence that positively points against the idea that growing up with two mums or two dads makes you gay, or sets you up any less well for life in the world.

But marriage is for a man and a woman, it says so in the Bible. But does it? Yes, the Genesis story is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, but you’ve got to go some to try to find modern marriage in that book: Polygamy, sexual slavery, concubinage, rape, prostitution, even celibacy; but a covenanted relationship between equal partners? Apart from David and Jonathan – and there’s no evidence that was sexual – there is none. In fact, apart from the Curse in Genesis 3, and the naughty rudeness of the Song of Solomon, nothing even acknowledges that women might have sexual desire at all. Biblical marriage looks like something deeply unattractive.

So, the churches can keep that. Modern marriage is a product of our own culture, our own society. Christianity played its part in creating it – it was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (the first married Archbishop of Canterbury) who put “the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” into the wedding service. He was dared to put it first (after procreation and the avoidance of sin), but his nerve broke. Centuries later, his insight has prevailed.

Couples who fall in love, and wish never to be apart, fall for that one – “the mutual society, help, and comfort” – as the essence of marriage. They might have children, they might not, that is immaterial. There are good marriages, there are bad marriages. We all know that these things are defined not by law, but by practice. But it is the purpose of the law to encourage the best, and discourage the worst. When gay couples are allowed to call their relationships marriage, the sky will not fall in. When they claim their rights as equal partners in a world in which they were made as equals, they will make things better for everyone, not worse. Youngsters, gay or straight, or bi, will think “yeah, I could do that”. The role models will be the best relationships, not the ones of which the churches approve.

Marriage is made for mankind, not the other way round. And by their fruits you shall know them. It’s in their book. Could their religious lordships just pay a little attention? Or else, shut up.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

Communication

THE TELEPHONE

It rings.
Is it now?
Do I want to know?
Can I bear not to?

It rings.

“Double glazing”?
How nice, but we don’t own the place.
How did they get my number?
Is it allowed? It’s a disgrace.

It rings.

How are things?
Well, he’s worse, but thank you for asking.
Morphine now.
Intravenous, so he’s not for lasting.

It rings.

Number withheld, I can’t face it.
But what if …?
Well, what difference can it make?
But what if …?

It rings

Yes, bring butter – make sure it’s salted
O God, is this all we care about?
Catering and cobblers
Whilst a life runs out?


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
April 2012

Monday, 2 January 2017

So Farewell, 2016

As the year draws to its close, I am being sworn at by Cat Minor, sitting in a bucket in the hall. That girl has class.

The beginning - on the 4th of January - was my starting work as an administrator for the New Road Baptist Church, at Bonn Square, in the centre of Oxford. I didn't think I'd get the job (why break the habit of eight years' applying?) and I even missed the first e-mail inviting me for interview, but it soon felt very much like home. The work is less simple than I expected, which is all to the good, and involves routine stuff, like drafting the weekly order of service, and checking the fire alarms, and more unexpected make-it-up-as-you-go-along things, like finding the fuse boxes, and discovering where all the keys are, and the doors they fit. My empire is vast, for a church - the chapel itself, with the customary baptistry (1 hr 45 minutes to fill, a day to heat), a late-Tudor wood-beamed room believed to have been part of King Charles I's Mint House when he briefly made Oxford his capital during the civil war, and a 4-storey extension behind the pulpit with two halls, several offices, washrooms (with showers, not just lavatories), and a lift. The last church I knew well - SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore - didn't even have running water in the building.

The most interesting thing about the work, though, is the people. On my very first "Church Meeting" day one of the congregation said aloud "the church is the people, not the building", and that is a cornerstone of Baptist identity. My previous ministry was as a priest in a church (or a chapel) with a parish (or a college), and the congregation were just those who turned up. Power lay with the vicar and churchwardens. With the Baptists, it's the minister - who is chosen to lead, and to pastor, not to do the housework - and the elected deacons, of whom there are ten. So I am a monkey with eleven organ-grinders. But I try to get to the Church Meetings, because the real power and authority and spirit of the church lies with the people, all of them, gathered together. I have tried to discern Baptist solutions to problems that arise through my office, rather than resorting to my normal Anglican ways. It has been illuminating.

The 4th of January was also the 27th anniversary of my first visit to Fairacres, in 1989. I met Sister Helen Columba of the Hoy Spirit, and we became friends ever since. She believed in the Mother of God, prayers for the dead, icons, and singing (as frivolous as necessary). On the 2nd of September, she exchanged time for eternity, as had her been her long-avowed wish, in her 89th year. This was a couple of months after Sister Isobel, who was instrumental in returning me to Fairacres as a monthly celebrant. I don't imagine either was a particularly easy sister to live with, but they were larger than life, and life will be different without them. Mine is.

In the summer, I hit my half-century, had a party, and went on holiday - very much at the insistance of my new employers, not, I think, to get rid of me, but to be good employers who give their staff the appropriate time off. I went to Dorset and to Sussex, where I was treated like a king and had adventures worthy of one.

To make life more interesting, on the 14th of October I had a fall. No, not the one you're guessing, before dinner, in the twilight, absent-mindedly walking on a rubbish bit of footpath. I thought nothing of it, had dinner with my friends (who were much more concerned) and it wasn't until the pain at 2 in the morning forced me that I went to the John Radcliffe Hospital, to A & E.

The break is thorough, my capacity to learn exercises to mend it is nil. I can nearly wash up. The operation was on Saint Frideswide's Day (19th of October). And I can bless the sisters with my right hand. But a bit of me is glad that briefly I used my left.

Ricardo and I have had 14 months apart (and that is the deepest and coldest hell of all). There are prospects of that changing, but all depends on what happens with Merry England (my parents' land in Sussex). Everything takes forever. They've checked the place for amphibians and for bats - 35 years ago I could have told them there's nothing so interesting there, and I strongly doubt their survey was more thorough than mine.

So, at the dawn of the year, we wait. Mostly we wait under the cloud of our friend Tim's pancreatic cancer, which shows no inclination to respond to treatmeant. But it's one of those cancers that tends not to. The Sisters tell me it is entirely proper to pray for a miracle. And so I do. He has probably given this world more than enough, but I find myself wishing for a little encore.

And, Oh yeah, I wrote a book! "O Taste And See" on Amazon Kindle.

The next one will be more interesting. I almost promise.

With love
Richard