(IX) ECCENTRIC COUNTRY – ENGLAND

Peter Milward


Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008

 CONTENTS

  <<Prev <<           >>Next>>

 

Preface:  English Humour in Pictures

 

Part I.  Ancient Eccentricities

1.       The Whale Stone

2.       Mysticism in Cows

3.       The Stone Dance

4.       A Dark Lighthouse

 

Part II.  Monuments of Madness

5.       Craziness from the Cradle

6.       The Ruins of Time

7.       Poetry amid Penury

8.       Play amid Ruins

 

Part III.  Castles in the Air

9.       Another Ruthless King

10.    Aftermath of a Masque

11.    Sheep at a Banquet

12.    Soldiers on Guard

 

Part IV.  Mad Mansions

13.    Disney in Cheshire

14.    The Haunted Hall

15.    The Shambles

16.    The Crooked Hall

 

Part V.  Holy Follies

17.    Converging Lines

18.    People on Pinnacles

19.    An Inclining Chancel

20.    The Spire and the Window

 

Part VI.  Queer Carvings

21.    Jacob’s Ladder

22.    Mediaeval Sumo

23.    An Indian Boy

24.    A Strange Saint

 

Part VII.  Comic Graves

25.  A Grave Figure-Head

26.  An Acrostic Epitaph

27.  The Church Cat

28.  Dead as Donkeys

 

Part VIII.  Unique Universities

29.  Funny Faces

30.  Spikes for Students

31.  Pig with Wings

32.  Fire!

 

Part IX.  Inspiration in Inns

33.  The Flying Horse

34.  The Fighting Cocks

35.  First and Last

36.  The End of the World

 

Part X.  Peculiar Publicity

37.  Touting for Tooth-Paste

38.  Bend or Bump!

39.  Upon My Sole!

40.  Private Property

 

Part XI.  Floral Folly

41.  The Anchor in Flower

42.  Sesame Street

43.  Floral Time

44.  British Bonsai

 

Part XII.  Animal Antics

45.  Cowardice of Cows

46.  Crossing the Road

47.  A Dog in the Water

48.  A Circus Cat 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Simplicity of the West 

 by Peter Milward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 AAFX: History of Christians in Japan  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LINKS

Who is Peter Milward?

Genesis of an Octogenarian

Blog Brittonia

All About Francis Xavier

BriFra

Who are the Jesuits?

Joining the Jesuits in Japan

About

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

     Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 Arise My Love by William Johnston

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part IX.  Inspiration in Inns 

 

33.       The Flying Horse

No less characteristic of the English countryside than the churches are the inns.  If we go to church for the worship of God, we go to the inn or pub for good fellowship.  Needless to say, these two concerns are not opposed to each other, but closely connected with each other.  They stand, after all, for the two great commandments of love.  If we bear witness to the love of God in church, we show love for our neighbour in the nearby inn – even when that love is punctuated by a quarrel.

 

This is why the inn is as much part of the English countryside as the church.  Only, considering the materials of which it is made, it doesn’t go so far back into the past.  Whereas the churches are mostly built in lasting stone, the inns are more likely to be made of timber (usually painted black) with walls of plaster (painted white).  This is why few inns in England can trace their history back more than five or six hundred years – though many may consider that long enough.

 

In a stone building like a church or a castle, one hardly expects to find comfort.  The praise of God in a church may well dispense with comfort, inasmuch as fasting, or discomfort in general, is associated with prayer.  But when it comes to good fellowship, we naturally look for the comfort connected with home.  So the structure of the traditional house in England is, like the inn, composed of black timber and white plaster. 

 

Another peculiar characteristic of the English inn is that it invariably has a name.  I mean, not a personal name like Tom, Dick or Harry, but the name or “sign” of an animal coloured red or black or white – or it may be named after the king in whose reign the inn was built – or it may simply be named according to the fancy of the innkeeper.  There is such a variety of names.  Only, they have to be concrete, apt for representation on the sign that hangs outside the inn.

 

Such is the sign of “The Flying Horse”, the name of an inn I once noticed in the town of Tenterden in Kent.  Unfortunately, I had no time to go inside and participate in the good fellowship I might have expected to find there, over a pint of bitter (or lager).  I was merely walking along the road, when the sign of the inn caught my attention.  It bore not only the name but also a picture of the horse in flight, with the information that the inn had a history going back to the sixteenth century.  Even more impressive was the name of Whitbread, indicating the local brewery which sponsors the inn and sells its ale inside.

 

Then, you may ask, what is the meaning of “The Flying Horse”?  It refers, of course, to the Greek myth of the flying horse named Pegasus, which has been well known in the West over some three thousand years.  It isn’t a real animal and never has been, but it is a symbol of poetic inspiration, rising from earth to heaven.  But then, you may further ask, what has a flying horse got to do with good fellowship or the consumption of alcohol?  One may say that the sign of an inn need have no special connection with either fellowship or alcohol.  It is enough for the sign to identify the inn.  It may be an elephant or a donkey, with or without wings, no less than a flying horse.  (For example, I remember an inn-sign showing two donkeys, over the name, “We Three”!)  It all depends on the whim of the innkeeper.

 

Yet it seems to me there is something appropriate in the sign of a flying horse.  For if the flying horse is a symbol of poetic inspiration, that inspiration is not uncommonly aided by the imbibing of ale or wine.  Many a poet has been inspired to compose poems not only by means of such liquor but also about it.  There is indeed a whole genre of drinking songs.  First, the poet drinks his chosen beverage, then he composes his poem and sets it to music, and finally he sings it for the benefit of the convivial company, whether alone or preferably with them.

 

I might add that another name for the inn is “tavern”, which comes from the Latin taverna.  In Japanese ears, however, it sounds like “taberu na!” – which means, “Don’t eat!”  This gives many Japanese the mistaken impression that we English are a nation of drunkards, but not gluttons.  In fact, however, one may find good food as well as drink at an English inn, according to the Latin saying, “Ne potus noceat” – lest the drink by itself prove harmful to the stomach or liver.

 

 

34.       The Fighting Cocks

The English are without doubt a humorous nation.  At least, we pride ourselves on our sense of humour, though there are not a few serious Englishmen, especially in the bureaucracy.  All the same, in the past we notice a streak of cruelty in them, not only to each other but even to animals.

 

Examples of our cruelty to animals may be seen in the formerly popular sports of bear-baiting and cock-fighting.  Nowadays they are less in evidence, since the foundation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA, in 1824.  In Shakespeare’s time, however, they were both flourishing, even in the neighbourhood of his Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the river Thames.

 

In bear-baiting the poor animal was tied to a stake in the ground and dogs were set on him till sooner or later he was killed by them.  In cock-fighting two cocks were set against each other and made to fight each other till one or the other was killed.  To us in our more humane age – when the only fights we recognize are those among human beings even on an international scale – it seems incredible that human beings could take pleasure in such cruel sports.  The places where the sports were held were called, respectively, bear-pits and cock-pits.  Incidentally, it is from the latter that the word for the “cock-pit” of an aeroplane is derived, referring not to any fights but to the narrow space for the pilot.

 

Here, however, I am speaking not so much about cock-fights or cock-pits as about inns of England with such names.  In the old city of St.Albans to the North of London there happens to be an old inn with the name of “The Fighting Cocks”.  I don’t know if it marks the spot where fighting between two cocks actually took place, but given the popularity of the sport, it must have been inevitable that sooner or later an inn would receive such a name.  Nor is it unlikely that another inn was named “The Baited Bear”, or “The Bear and the Stake”, or “The Bear and the Dogs”, with reference to that other cruel sport.

 

This particular inn at St.Albans is one of the sights of this old city.  Everywhere in and around the city one comes upon Roman remains, since its history goes back to Roman times when it was named Verulamium, or the city on the river Ver.  In later mediaeval times it was the site of one of the largest abbeys in England, and at the Reformation of Henry VIII the abbey church had the good fortune to be set apart as a cathedral, and so it was spared destruction.  Then, not far from the cathedral one comes to this inn, going back at least to the fifteenth century, when it may well have been patronized by the monks.

 

What I find specially attractive about the inn is its octagonal shape.  Or is it hexagonal?  Certainly, it isn’t square, nor is it normal in any sense of the word.  It is as eccentric an inn as you will find anywhere in this land of eccentrics.  The structure is small enough, and the angles of the tiles come together in a point at the centre of the roof.  The walls are of timber and plaster, and everything about them bespeaks old age.  One may well imagine white-haired old men sitting beside the fire in high wooden chairs, in what is called the “ingle-nook”, drinking from pewter mugs and smoking clay pipes, while indulging in reminiscences of “the good old days”.

 

Everything about this inn is so harmonious, so old-fashioned, so reminiscent of merry England, that even the name – for all its cruel associations – seems part of the harmony.  One even feels something comic in the scene of angry cocks making for each other’s throats with their wings flying in all directions.  Such a scene is so ridiculous, it hardly seems cruel.  As for the men gathered round those fighting cocks, they must have been no less amused at the spectacle than anxious about the outcome of a game on which they had laid their bets.  Maybe there isn’t such an opposition between cruelty and humour after all.

 

The humour of it comes out of the antics of the cocks, when they go at each other with might and main, but without a thought in their little heads – like many a human being in similar circumstances.  Only when you put yourself in the position of one or other cock, you can’t help feeling the pity of it.  Poor birds! – fighting each other without realizing it, just for human entertainment.  If only they could be kept apart from each other, looking after their respective hens, as in Chaucer’s delightful tale of Chanticleer and Pertelote, or the Cock and the Hen, as told by the Nuns’ Priest in his Canterbury Tales.  Chaucer for one was able to enter into the feelings of those birds and to tell a tale that is funny, without being cruel.

 

 

35.       First and Last

Among the many odd inn-signs I have encountered in my travels through England, one of the oddest is a sign that read “First and Last”.  This was the sign of an inn in the Somersetshire village of Nether Stowey, whose chief claim to historical distinction is that the poet Coleridge stayed here for a short time.  That was when his poet-friend Wordsworth was staying a few miles away at the country house of Alfoxton Hall.  The two would go on long country walks over the nearby hills, in deep discussion on poetic and philosophical subjects.

 

It was this literary connection that prompted me to stop at this village in the course of two literary tours.  Then, while looking at Coleridge’s house from the outside – as we were unable to enter – I noticed the name of an inn on the other side of the road, “First and Last.”  What an odd name, I wondered, for an inn!  What on earth did it mean?  Who or what was first, and who or what was last?

 

Abstractly speaking, one can think of many possibilities.  One might think of the beginning of the world with the creation of light, and the end of the world consumed by fire.  Or one might think of any beginning and any end, as when we say, “From first to last.”  But such thoughts are too abstract for the concrete needs of an inn-sign.

 

Still, there was the inn-sign over our heads.  So we had no need of speculation as to what it might mean.  There above us we could make out the forms of two animals, a tortoise and a rabbit.  But still I wondered, what have a tortoise and a rabbit got to do with first and last?

 

Needless to say, to anyone who knows anything about children’s literature, the answer to this question leaps out of the pages of Aesop’s Fables.  For among the fables is the famous one about the tortoise and the rabbit’s cousin, the hare.  As everyone knows, the tortoise and the hare have a race with each other.  Then, though the hare runs faster than the tortoise, he is too self-assured and too sleepy, so he falls asleep while waiting for the tortoise to reach him, and so he loses the race to the tortoise.  Then we have the proverb, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

 

At this inn the former innkeeper evidently made his choice not of one animal, which would have been too normal, but of them both.  He has, moreover, shown them not fighting with each other, even to the shedding of blood and the taking of life, as at The Fighting Cocks, but engaging in healthy competition with each other in a sporting event.  What is more, it is the slower of the two animals who wins, thereby teaching us a moral lesson.  In this lesson we may recall the words of Jesus, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  Or in Aesopian terminology, “The hare shall be last, and the tortoise shall be first.”

 

The inn itself, however, was very plain, with nothing of the old-world attraction of The Fighting Cocks.  I even felt something puritanical about it, though one doesn’t think of the Puritans as indulging in liquor as a means of good fellowship.  Still, the inside was no doubt more appealing than the outside.  Only, when we were there, the inn was as closed to us as the poet’s house, and we were left to our imaginations.

 

Did Coleridge, I wondered, bring his friend here, whether at the beginning or the end of their long walks?  Maybe more likely at the end, when they would have felt in need of a pint of something.  Then, while they were drinking together, what would they have been talking about?  About the first and the last, or the tortoise and the hare?  Maybe.  And maybe they would have found some symbolic significance in the two animals.

 

So here we have the two friends talking with each other, and there the two animals racing against each other.  Surely, being poets, the two friends would have found some symbolism of themselves in the animals.  Of the two, I suppose Wordsworth, being a countryman, was the better walker.  He was always going on walking holidays, whether in the South of England or in Germany or in the Lake District.  As poet, too, he was accustomed to jumping to conclusions, without taking all the logical steps from the premises.  So he may well be likened to the hare.

 

As for the tortoise, I see him symbolized in Coleridge.  The latter may have been a poet, with such a fine poem as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to his credit – whose name I find, from a more recent visit, has come to replace “First and Last” on the new inn-sign.  But he was more of a philosopher.  So I can well imagine that in their conversations while walking over the nearby hills Coleridge did most of the talking, while Wordsworth was content with the walking.

 

As for the outcome of the race, Coleridge as tortoise must have come in first, with Wordsworth as hare coming in last.  But in what kind of race?  A race for the best poem, or for the best philosophical treatise, or for the inn after the walk?  My choice is the last.

 

 

36.       The End of the World

I have yet to encounter an inn proclaiming itself “The Beginning”, in the sense of the creation of the world, but I have encountered one identifying itself as “The End of the World”.  Literally, it must be the last, if not the latest, thing in inns!

 

Then, I may be asked, where is this “End of the World”?  Well, for all the eccentricity of its name, the inn isn’t in England but in Scotland, where the people are usually more logical.  So where’s the logic of naming an inn “The End of the World”?  I suppose one might say there’s logic in everything, however seemingly illogical, once you know the reason for it.  Even for this name there must be a logical explanation, a reason to make the name reasonable enough.  As I have said, to know all is to forgive all, even the claim to be “The End of the World”.

 

To identify the location of this odd inn more precisely, it is to be found in the very capital of Scotland, Edinburgh.  In the very heart of the capital, in the old city, along the royal mile that leads romantically downwards from the old castle to the newer palace of Holyrood, one comes to the former city boundary at a house called the Tolbooth, or custom-house, and there, on the opposite side of the road, one encounters “The End of the World”.

 

It was in fact the end of the city, the Eastern end, in olden times, and to many a citizen of Edinburgh in those times it was the end of their little world and the beginning of an unknown wilderness beyond.  It was for them the end of civilization and the beginning of barbarism.  It was the end of all they valued in the comfort of home and the beginning of outer darkness, discomfort and despair.  Of course, that would have been before the palace was built.

 

Still even in those old days the citizens couldn’t remain within the city forever.  They had of necessity to venture forth from time to time into the unknown world outside and mingle with barbarians.  So they must have felt in need of courage, or what is called Dutch courage, which is provided by alcoholic drink.  As in England our drink is ale, whether bitter or lager, so in Scotland their preferred drink is whisky.  There you have a sufficient explanation not only of the place but also of the purpose of “The End of the World”, as providing both the traveler with the needed strength for his journey and the innkeeper with the needed money for his pocket.

 

This explanation, however, true though it may be, suffers the disadvantage and the dissatisfaction of all such explanations.  It may offer a sufficient reason for the name and the function of the inn, but it deprives the inn of its mystique.  In other words, it reduces the mysticism of “The End of the World” to something humdrum, ordinary and matter-of-fact.  In its meaning all rumours of “wars and rumours of war”, all conflicts of nations, earthquakes on the ground and eclipses in the sky, are brought to an end.  Then all that remains is a mere sign, put up by a son of man, in the form of the innkeeper, encouraging the passer-by before he leaves the city to come in for a drink.

 

As with the other inns of which I have been speaking, I haven’t been inside this one either.  The very name was a temptation to me to go in for a drink, and if I resisted the temptation, it was due to no aversion from Scotch whisky – of which I am not particularly fond.  But at the time I must have been pressing on to Holyrood Palace.  Or perhaps “The End of the World” was closed for the time being.  So I contented myself with taking a picture of the intriguing inn-sign.  How I wish I had gone inside, but now it is too late!

 

Among all the inns I have seen in my travels this sign is quite unique.  Still, as a name, without special reference to the time of which Jesus spoke in his “Eschatological Discourse”, it isn’t so very unique.  I know of several places called “The End of the World” or “World’s End”.  One is in England, in the very heart of the English Midlands, a little to the West of Birmingham.  Another is in France, also a village, which I have never seen either on a map or in physical reality, but of which I have read in an essay on the place by G.K.Chesterton.  In his essay he speaks of his ride in a taxi to this place almost as if it were literally what it claims to be.

 

Now, after speaking of this essay by G.K.Chesterton, I must quote a poem by T.S.Eliot, “This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”  And this, too, is the way my essay on “The End of the World” must end, “not with a bang, but a whimper”.

 

<<Prev <<           >>Next>>