Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Dark Fantasia on a Theme of the Labour Camp

Yes, I will sit down, thank you so much. I was sitting down before; waiting. Have you noticed how in this Jobcentre, where you have power to take the means of life away from people for being late, your lot are never actually on time? In fact I mentioned it to my last minder - "how can you have a 9 a.m. appointment" when the doors don't open until then, and there's a queue? She said it was none of her business. No, I don't suppose it's yours either. I was just commenting.

How am I? Oh dear, I wish you hadn't asked. My late Nan used to answer that question as if people meant it. It got so bad that some of us only asked it if we really did mean it (and in my case, that was only if I knew she was making me lunch, and would have to break off at some point to sort lovely things out in the kitchen). How am I? Unemployed at nearly 49, out of work for most of the last decade, cut off from the only work I ever did for love. How am I? Well, my arthritis is, the doctor says, improved by the 4 mile walk to sign on with you. And my depression needs walking to keep me off the antidepressants, because the side-effects were vile. So, I should be full of beans, really, coming to see you, Mr Moustache. But the truth is, if I had the freedom, I'd flick the switch. Oh, didn't you read about the man who went to Switzerland to end his life before it became pointless? Of course not. It was in the news, that other reality. The real one. Well, I'm unemployed, I have all day to think of ways not to be.

Work paid or unpaid? Well, not yet. But I'm certainly not going to tell you about it. I may not get it, and the scene you made about my applying for voluntary work makes me chary of saying I do anything useful at all. But what's "work" anyway? I wash up, cook, shop, do the laundry, feed and care for the cats, handle the post, of all different kinds, deal with citizenship questions, and all manner of officialdom. Is that not work? No, best not mention that I keep a household of two adult men and two adult cats on the shoestring of one man's benefits. No, that's not work. It's probably not even "transferable skills". So, no, I don't work. I just sit at home, waiting for your thirty-minute slot to patronise me.

I've got work tomorrow - helping a lady write a letter to a school on behalf of her son. Voluntary, of course. I'm not mentioning it because you'll get the forms out again, and I shall want to kill you more than I do already, which I know is unfair, as you're just obeying orders. And despite what they say, for a lot of the junior people, that really did get them off the hook at Nuremberg.

What have I done to look for work? Well, there's the local papers and stuff like that. Your own website which is considerably worse than useless. No, I don't come to it with any great enthusiasm - after eight years, only a complete retard would. But I do wonder a little what YOU are doing for ME, Mr Moustache. I've been signed off with madness for seven years, and rendered sane by a commercial French company for one, and in the time of my madness I had two sessions with someone about my CV - she said to make it less interesting - and since I became sane, had two jobs suggested by my former minders here. I applied for both, of course, post haste. Nothing. And now each week - as well as seeing your moustache every fortnight - I see my new minders at the American company which also does nothing at all. I'm quite conscious of how big your offices are. This is the busiest by far, but no one would say you're run off your feet. And then there's the other office down the road, converted at great expense for purpose, and now almost derelict. You use it for people to get their dole scroungers' bus passes. I tried it for a while. I couldn't cope with the sneers. From the bus drivers. That's why I walk. But that other office isn't open plan, it's equipped for violence. Yet you keep the two. And then there's my American minders. Their office is HUGE and no one is in it. And this, and your space, and the empty space for the violent people, all in prime central Oxford locations, are being paid for by my tax money.

You think I don't pay tax because I have to come and grovel before you each fortnight for less than enough to live on? Do you know anything at all? There is not a person who lives and breathes in this country who doesn't pay tax. People like me, the lowest 5%, pay more tax at the marginal rate, than the Duke of Westminster. Oh really? Yes, really. Sorry, I forgot, you aren't interested in politics.

What have I done to look for work? Well, I really only do it when I have to go to the Americans. Any job worth having will be advertised for a week. I've also spent a lot of time on Facebook and my blog being wildly funny and clever. Why? Because if I didn't I'd be fairly sure I was already dead. See it as training. Keeping the brain in training. Oh, you'd rather I kept applying for jobs I won't get? Have you any idea how destructive that is to all parties? It's not your job? No, I don't suppose it is your job to think about the consequences of your actions.

Well, be assured, Mr Moustache, if I had that switch, and if I knew that my partner and cats and plants would be taken care of, I'd be off your books. This life, the life you're forcing me to live, isn't worth having. It would be win-win for the Department of Work & Pensions - no benefits now, no pension later. Thinking about it, what does it cost to get to Switzerland? I'm costing you £73.10 a week just to live, and housing benefit on top.

Mr Moustache, you should encourage me to flick that switch. It's your patriotic duty.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015

Friday, 22 May 2015

From the Salt Mine to the Treacle Well

Yesterday was a very fine day. Nippy at first, as I set off for the labour camp at half past seven, but then bright, and gloriously blue. It was partly the rather insipid poetry-and-espionage blue of Cambridge, and none the darker blue of this fair city's older university, which would have presaged the sort of weather I like even more, but a real sky blue, the sort you wish you could grasp in your hands and bundle into a pocket to fling into mundane spaces like a bathroom or a bedroom, and make them glorious. What could be more mundane than the walk to Maximus? and yet even that was made glorious by those magnificent skies.

I'm not sure if most people have heard of Maximus. It's the outfit the Jobcentre sends the no-hopers to, if they've been on the books over a year. It's a private, profitable, company, run by Americans. I believe they are soon to take the "fitness for work" testing over from the unlovely Atos, and they can hardly do a worst job than that barbaric shower, but being American rather than French, I imagine they'll ask the taxpayer for double the profit.

You are promised all sorts of things at the Jobcentre - and also when you are farmed out to Maximus. Your minder is called a "work coach", which is marvellous, as they seem to have comfortable jobs doing very little at all, and I wouldn't mind being coached as to how to get a slice of that inaction. But it doesn't seem to work that way. Or at all. Years ago, when I signed on as a student in the summer holidays (long since disallowed as it makes the summer unemployment figures look bad, when migrant farm worker should be making them look good) you queued up for quite a while sometimes, and were seen for about two minutes by someone who didn't usually look at you, certainly didn't use your name, told you to sign, and you went away. Now, you can have ages and ages of chatter. And then you sign and go away. In a year, my minders have found me precisely two jobs to apply for - I duly did, no joy. I've gone on every course recommended, asked for courses that aren't available (publishing, for instance, or a computer course which doesn't start from scratch). I've asked them to write to my bishop for me, but they didn't fancy that. My new Maximus minder saw that I was drawn to work in the universities and suggested that I might apply to be a porter. It would have required a handsome helping of humble pie, but I might have done it, except that it didn't pay enough.

There is a holy grail in my search, which is work that pays £18,600 a year. This is the price at which the Home Office permits you to be married to a foreign citizen. If you earn less, your right to marry - and to live and work and get on with things - is curtailed. I strongly doubt that this is legal under the Equalities and Human Rights Acts (both English laws, nothing to do with Europe) but those who could afford to bring a case, don't need to, and those who need to, can't afford to. Nifty that.

They are generally polite and respectful. At the Jobcentre the man I see to sign on each fortnight is a niggardly little fellow with big glasses, a moustache, and a tendency to talk over me which has brought me to the brink of an official complaint. But he is the exception. They are nice people. They mean the best for everyone - and they have targets to encourage everyone to do their best too. But actually, they do nothing. There is nothing they can do. They can't make employers employ people who don't look like a good bet. There was talk in the papers a while ago about "guaranteeing" interviews for the longer-term unemployed, but I hear nothing of it now. I'm rather good at interviews, it's my paperwork that lets me down. Who wants to work with a middle-aged, sacked, vicar (probably a child molester) with a history of depression? And there's no disguising all that, short of telling lies. One of my minders saw a job for a Humanist Minister - "you could do that", she said with an encouraging smile (because in a way, so I could, but) "I'm an Anglican priest, I am the antithesis of a humanist minister". "Oh". I doubt she had any more clue what an antithesis is, than a humanist. And why should she?

The offices are huge and lavishly, modernly, furnished. They have the finest technology of which the staff have but the slenderest grasp. The Jobcentre does at least look busy, not bustling, there's no urgency about the place - not like those old two-minute days - but Maximus is a huge office, and yesterday you could have got all three staff, and both clients, comfortably in the kitchen. A family of eleven could have lived equally comfortably in the rest of the space. There are twenty computers for the striving punters to use. Only two were in use. The other punter was shouted at for not trying harder - "I'm going to break up with you if you don't find a job soon" - said the cross minder, clearly not thinking that their beautiful relationship would end anyway if he found a job, and they'd probably never meet again. I don't think any normal commercial enterprise could operate at a profit in such a huge space in George Street, in the centre of the most expensive city outside London. And there's no soap in the gentlemen's lavatory. Tea and coffee are, however, free. I don't indulge - I have a four-mile walk home, and the Maximus one is the last lavatory before the ones in Bury Knowle Park in Headington.

So, I did my duty, as we used to say when we took the dog out in the evenings, filled in application forms, sent off CVs, made enquiries, nagged the people that ignored me last week, and then left, after an hour and a half in an over-heated warehouse office, with horrible artificial lighting, and absolutely nothing going on.

Next chore was the landlord's agent in St Clement's. The lease comes up next month, and he wants another £25. That's a 3.3% increase. Last year it was the same, 3.4% then. Inflation that morning was a half-century record low of -0.1%. I suggested that the recent murder round the corner (in a car in the street, not a nice quiet domestic) might have lowered the tone sufficiently for us to be spared yet another increase, but the landlord wants to sell the block, so it's in his interests to show maximum profitability, and the agent said "if you don't want to sign, tell us when you plan to move out". Possession is indeed nine tenths of the law. Apparently he wants a million for it, which seemed a bit steep, but on reflection if six flats are forking out £9,000 a year, then £54,000 is over a 5% return, and then there's the rise in capital value too. Maybe he'll get it.

New lease duly signed and witnessed I had over three hours to fill before doing an amusing experiment at Nuffield College (for money). I wandered around Christ Church Meadow, trees and hedgerows all bursting with life, with some magnificent views across to the dreaming sandstone spires against the glorious blue skies. And then what? When you have time on your hands, everything you think will take twenty minutes, takes five. I resolved to walk along the river to Oseney, and then back through the churchyard and parish of S. Thomas Becket. But I was at Oseney Bridge in no time, still with two hours. Could I make it to Binsey and back? I hadn't been there in years. Turns out, I could.

Binsey was made famous by our (college's, university's, city's) patron saint, Frideswide. There are lots of stories about her, almost all of them made up, but this ancient Saxon church, with no light or water, is probably one of the true stories. Her well, at the West End of the church was the model for Lewis Carroll's Treacle Well. It is a very modest affair now. There's an inscription mentioning both Frideswide and Saint Margaret of Antioch, the patron of the church: a saint we know little about, and a saint we know they knew had never existed when they dedicated it to her. There was a bird's egg, and, I think, a dead mouse, at the foot of the steps. I couldn't see any water, but that's not really how wells work.

I have a deep fondness for this place as it's the first church in which I ever took a service. It was a summer evensong, when the vicar, Father Robert, was away. He lent me his cassock, the one he was ordained in (the year I was born) to give the occasion verisimilitude. Robert used to sing it, which I couldn't, but no one seemed much to mind. At the end, a man older than my grandfather said "thank you Father - oh don't mind about the the singing; I do like a parson who can pray".

Like a lot of ancient places, it's not very spectacular, but the atmosphere is the thing. It is full of tried and tested holiness. Mooching around the churchyard, I saw four graves I knew something about. One was the classics don at Christ Church who laid his head on the railway line nearby late one night until a passing train sliced it off. Binsey is a Christ Church living, and Father Robert offered to bury the suicide. For years after, Dean Heaton would ask "was it us, was it our fault?" Then there was the Hindu chemist who was loved by all and sundry and served his community for many years. Father Robert sent half the ashes off to the Ganges with his blessing, and put the other half in Binsey churchyard to popular acclaim. Olive had been churchwarden when my first ex and I lived in a little house in the graveyard of another church in the benefice at the time - S. Thomas's. John Coombes' House was so cold her sister Helen gave us a crochet blanket that had been made by one of the Sisters of S. Thomas's (the community lived from 1844 to 1955). I still have it. And then there was Father Robert's mother, described as his father's widow, but not bearing his surname. A place of ghosts, perhaps, if ghosts would have been visible on that bright blue day.

And so, back along the river, past Bossom's Boatyard ("curious name, Bossom, neither the one thing nor the other", said Winston Churchill) and on to Nuffield to be experimented upon for twenty quid in Amazon vouchers.

And so, finally up the hill four miles to home.

The only real bit of the day was by the Treacle Well. The rest was sheer absurdity, under the bright blue sky.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Perils of Pruning

From a Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford

Wednesday, 6th of May, 2015, 9 a.m.
Eve of the United Kingdom's General Election


Gospel: John 15:1-8

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

+ May I speak in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost

There's a lot of nice, positive, stuff in this passage, but what it made me think of was excommunication. It's not something, in nearly twenty years of ministry, that I've ever done to someone. There's a line in the film "Priest" - controversial at the time, but I doubt it would be now - on the subject, in which an older parson says "I always figured they had more right to receive it, than I had to give it", and I pretty much go along with that. But, although I've never excommunicated anyone, I've been there when someone very nearly excommunicated himself - by accident.

It happened in the parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields, which is a lovely place, but it was peopled by fundamentalists. Not the kind you see on the news from America - or Iraq - they were fundamentalists for the Book of Common Prayer. It is a rare condition, and meant that almost everyone in the congregation was there because they were cross with some other church for NOT using the BCP. Rather a challenge, pastorally. There was one young man - and he was younger than me, back then, so he really might have been young, not just by comparison with everyone else - whose name I think was David, who delighted in writing long, detailed, letters to the clergy about our failings, and especially our failure to conduct the liturgy properly. What really got his goat was the words for the administration of communion. I'm sure you've heard them - rather wordy, almost a paragraph really, which sometimes get muttered over two or more communicants to save time. Well, we didn't do that. Every communicant got the same words, but not the full words, for the practical reason that my senior colleague the rector was also an archdeacon, so in the nature of things, he had to gallivant about to all sorts and conditions of churches in the course of a couple of months, and he simply couldn't remember the full words. So we abbreviated them. Much to David's fury.

One morning, David came to the altar rail carrying a book. I'm sure the sign is familiar to every church-goer - you carry a book, or the order of service, if you wish to receive a blessing, rather than communion. I thought to myself "well, it's a rum deal if he's not prepared to receive communion from me, but still wants my blessing, but hey-ho" and promptly did so, whereupon he said in a panicked voice "you can't excommunicate me without telling the bishop!" "I thought you didn't want communion - why are you carrying that book?" "To say the proper words". "So, you do want communion?" "Yes". And it was so. But, poor thing, by this time his hands were shaking so much he'd lost his place in the book, and he couldn't remember the pesky words - which was the whole point of our not using them all in the first place! By misadventure and confusion, he had almost excommunicated himself, pruned himself out of the vine, and risked being left for burning.

And I got to thinking, when I saw this reading, about what it means to be in the vine, to be pruned for good, and to be pruned out for ever. Much is going on in the world at the moment. In this country tomorrow, we get to cast our votes for the first time in five years on the fate of the nation, the Union, the European Union, even the earth itself. Yes indeed, there are weighty things for us all to think about. But what's bothering me is my aspidistra. The thing is that it has outgrown its pot and it's time to re-pot and divide it. But this isn't such an easy thing because the aspidistra is of immense sentimental value to me - it was a most unexpected birthday present when I was 45. I'd wanted one ever since I read George Orwell's book years ago, and all the more since hearing Gracie Fields singing her song. This is a most cherished pot-plant. But, if it divides into three, as I think it might, which bit will remain the original? Which will be the gift? And if one of those bits ends up with a friend in Liverpool - which is a very long way away, so far that I've never been there - will the gift remain somehow symbolically, sacramentally, present, in Liverpool, as well as in Barton? Will it continue to be the whole, true gift, but in more than one place, or will a part be pruned away, and consigned to the fire?

Well, we have more important things to think about than aspidistras, and this is a celebration of Holy Communion, so we must find some Good News. I think it lies in those words at the beginning of the Gospel - "My father is the vine-dresser". It's God who does the pruning. And it might be no bad thing should certain persons in the wider church bear in mind that it's none of their business to prune the vine - lest they find themselves the chopped off bit, and fit only for the fire. If the vine is in God's hands that is Good News for us all. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Happy Birthday?

Today, my paternal grandfather would have been 107 years old. Grandad would have hated it. He hated being old at all - he hated being 70 (remember the days when 70 was old?). When he was ill with bronchitis (no one ever named, if they even knew it, the lung cancer that actually killed him) he would rise from his bed only if he could lean on a rather dashing silver-handled Japanese ebony cane. I have that cane now. It is incredibly strong, and even though it tapers to a small point, it can carry a lot of weight. It's so elegant that you don't notice if the person leaning on it actually needs it. He was a cunning old cove.

I remember Grandad as someone who was always telling jokes, drinking tea, eating my Nan's spaghetti with a knife and fork, making things at his carpentry bench, surprising us. When I was collecting coins, as sad lonely boys do, one Boxing Day (that was our Christmas wider-family celebration, the day itself was just the four of us, although we lived only half a mile away) he rustled a small silver thing out of his pocket and asked me what I thought it was. I told him it was a Queen Anne sixpence from 1711, and had probably been clipped at some point (they used to do that to take the little clippings to sell the silver on, whilst fobbing the original coin off at its face value). He decided this was a sufficiently clever answer that he gave me the coin back after I returned it to him. He said he'd found it in the scrap (my family were scrap metal merchants). All nonsense, of course, he'd been up to Seaby's (the coin dealers) in London and bought it - it was my Christmas present. For my sister, who was much closer to both grandparents, he made a dollshouse, with electric lighting, and a Jaguar in the garage. He was that sort of man.

The last time we spoke was on their 47th wedding anniversary, three days before he died, in 1981. We were at the table - my Nan of course was catering. You might ask why others weren't doing the cooking, but Nan really wouldn't have liked that. And she was a cooking wizard. They were talking about the day, back in 1934, when they were permitted only a side altar at the church of the Holy Ghost and Saint Stephen in Hammersmith, because no one knew whether Grandad was baptised. My Nan was born of Italian Catholic immigrant stock, so she was kosher. But about him, they knew nothing, so they got second best. Forty-seven years later it still rankled. He said that day "it doesn't matter", but it clearly did. And it mattered to my Nan too, that he should have been baptised. All her grandchildren were, although by no means all of her great-grandchildren in her lifetime, and she wasn't so happy about that.

When I got religion at university a few years later - and how I wish I could have shown Grandad around Oxford, because though he would not have said anything soppy, I know he would have been as pleased as punch - I discovered that there is a Saint Alexander (died in 313 in Alexandria, in Egypt) whose feast day is the same as Grandad's birthday. Nan found that quite encouraging, that perhaps a religious name had been chosen for him, because he was born on the saint's day. All nonsense of course, he was named after his mother's brother Alexander Patterson, and he in turn was named after their mother's father, Alexander Bonner, who murdered his wife in a drunken brawl. But we didn't know all that then. I doubt anyone knew it by then. Families are very good at forgetting what it pleases them not to remember.

Grandad was the 9th child (8th surviving) of 12. Only one of the eight before him had died; two of the three after died as babies. He was born in the workhouse in Minster on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. History doesn't record what happened to the seven other children while their mother was in the workhouse giving him life, but we do know it only happened because his father was out at sea, or drunk, or gambling, in another port. I clearly remember Grandad describing the time his father came back from sea - he was a fisherman, and later a fishmonger (a skill Grandad inherited, the last of five generations, although my late father was pretty handy with a fish, too), and in between quite often a dock labourer - and spun gold sovereigns, at least two, maybe three, across the table. But there were no gold sovereigns for Polly Patterson, Grandad's mother, on Sunday the 3rd of May 1908. And heaven knows how she was treated in the workhouse - which was the only place the poor could go for medical care in those days. She was far from her own Great Yarmouth family in Norfolk, and her husband's family were near, but clearly useless.

She chose his name - as she did for Uncle Matt and Aunt Alice ("Dolly") and Uncle Bill and Auntie Nellie, and Amy, one of the babies who died - from her own family.

And not long ago, I discovered that she also had him Christened - on the 22nd of May, probably in the church of S. Mary in Minster. I wish I could have told my Nan this (she died in 2009, aged 95). Her confirmation middle name was Mary, and she was married as Annunziata Mary. They could have had the high altar for their wedding after all.

Of course, as he said nearly 34 years ago "it doesn't matter". But it did. Polly died, having given birth to twelve children, and aged just 37, when Grandad was not yet six. His sister Rose was six months old. The family scattered and crumbled, and never really worked as a family again. He later made a life for himself, with considerable help from his wife's family (which always did, and still does, work as a family) and his own children, but on the back of his own quick wits and indomitable courage. Speaking to a friend who survived a horrific childhood, she observed "when you've lived in the abyss, you're never really scared of anything again".

Two last vignettes of this complex man I am proud to descend from. At a New Year's Eve party a woman arrived on crutches. Not because she'd had an accident, but because she was permanently disabled. Grandad made a point, without making a point, of dancing with her. He wanted no one to be left out of the party.

And one time, in the days of IRA attacks on London and elsewhere, my sister and I were playing draughts by the window of their front room, on a table he had made himself, and he sidled up and said "there was an Irishman out there the other day, trying to blow up a bus". "No?!" "Yes, but he couldn't get his mouth round the exhaust pipe."

I doubt that the day of his birth was a happy one, but I, and many others of us, are very happy that he was born. He did matter. So, Happy Birthday, Grandad.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015