(X) ECCENTRIC COUNTRY – ENGLAND

Peter Milward, SJ


Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008

 CONTENTS

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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 X.  Peculiar Publicity

 

37.       Touting for Tooth-Paste

The typical English gentleman, we imagine, is formal, polite, insistent on punctilio, wears a bowler-hat with pin-striped trousers and carries an umbrella on his way to work.  Even today, if you get up early and make your way to the City of London, you may see thousands of such gentlemen as you cross London Bridge, though they may not be wearing a bowler-hat.  You may, however, be pleased, and relieved, to hear that this is merely the outer surface, not the inner reality.

 

The inner reality is only revealed when the above-mentioned gentleman returns home to his wife and family in the suburbs.  There he can be himself again, after having put on the pretence of a public face all day in the city.  For an Englishman it is such a strain putting on such a public face for such a long time.  So it is only natural for him to long for “home, sweet home”, to be with his wife and children as soon as he can, without wasting time with his pals at pubs, and to relax once more with his private face.

 

Unfortunately, however, it is difficult for the foreign visitor to make his way to the suburbs in order to find the English gentleman at home.  Even if he trails the gentleman all the way to the suburbs and then, after waiting outside to give the other time to resume his private face, if he knocks at the door and the gentleman himself answers the door, he will only be disappointed to find the gentleman instantly putting on his public face again, and his whole journey will have been in vain.

 

But now let me give such a visitor to London a piece of advice.  If you really wish to see the private face of the English gentleman, you don’t have to go all the way to his home in the suburbs.  You can stay in the city and look at posters advertising various kinds of goods.  They are there for everyone to see, and they are often as humorous as the public face of the English gentleman is serious.  For if you wish to touch the hearts and the pockets of the English, you have to appeal to their sense of humour.

 

So now let me speak of a particular poster I once noticed on a main street in London not far from the crowds of Holborn.  Once more I was with a group of Japanese, but I was the only one to notice the poster and take a picture of it, before pointing it out to my companions.  I am not even sure if they saw the humour of it, since its appeal wasn’t so much to Japanese as to Englishmen.

 

This was a poster for Colgate’s tooth-paste, showing a picture of a typical English gentleman with a tube of the tooth-paste in his hand.  Above his head were inscribed the words, “Gum Protection Formula. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.”  What a strange thing to say!  It struck me not as a joke but as a riddle.  What could it mean?  No doubt, it presented Colgate’s tooth-paste as a precious means of protecting the gums, while implying that the gums are more important than the teeth.  Why?

 

Now let me return to the gentleman in the picture.  I have described him as a typical English gentleman, the kind one may pass any morning on London Bridge.  But in one respect he isn’t so typical, because he doesn’t have any teeth, not even false ones.  He has lost them all.  All he has left in his mouth are the gums.  He looks so funny!  You don’t need to read anything.  You just have to look at him, and you burst out laughing.  Without his teeth he can’t keep his public face any longer.  What he reveals without his teeth is his private face, even in the publicity of a poster.

 

This is, I think, what helps to sell Colgate’s tooth-paste to English customers.  Of course they don’t want to lose their teeth, leaving only the gums.  So of course they have to buy Colgate’s.  Or even if they don’t rush to the nearest chemist’s and ask for a tube of Colgate’s – that might be undignified – they can’t easily forget such a funny poster with such a funny face.  Then, remembering the poster with the face, they also recall the name of Colgate’s.  And there you have the whole point of advertising, which appeals not so much to reason as to emotion by way of association, and especially by means of humour.

 

The advantage of such a poster is, moreover, that you can stare at it for as long as you like, and you can take as many pictures of it as you like, without fear of being impolite or giving offence to the gentleman.  After all, it is only a poster, and he is showing you the other face of the typical English gentleman.

 

 

38.       Bend or Bump!

In England, unlike America, France and Japan, we have no Disneyland.  We have no need of Disneyland.  For England is Disneyland.  You don’t have to go anywhere in England to find Disneyland, for the simple reason that everywhere in England – outside the modern industrial cities – is Disneyland.  Or rather, England is the source and origin of most of what you find in Disneyland – apart from those attractions that feature the wild and woolly West.

 

 Still, there are some places in England that are more like Disneyland than others.  Or I should say, there are some attractions in Disneyland that are more like places in England than others.  Such a place is Hawkshead in the Lake District, to the North of England.  This charming village is full of associations both with the poet William Wordsworth, who went to school here, and with the creator of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter, whose farm-house is nearby.  Quite apart from these literary associations, however, the place has a charm of its own.  Among the many unique villages of the English countryside, Hawkshead is uniquely unique.

 

For those who have never been there or seen the place with their own eyes, how can I possibly maintain my thesis of the unique unicity of Hawkshead?  All I can say, after having stated my thesis, is, “Go and see the village for yourselves!  How can you expect me to describe the place, if you’ve never seen it with your own eyes?  Seeing is believing.  Otherwise, it is like explaining colour to a man who has been blind from birth.”

 

All the same, in the limited space at my disposal, I will do my best to indicate one of the many charming oddities I have noted at Hawkshead.  In the village no two houses are the same.  They are all, it seems, deliberately different from each other.  Yet they all harmonize so well together.  They form a centre of many eccentricities.  Now among them there is a certain house below the common level.  You have to go down a few steps to reach the front door.  The door itself is lower than other doors, and over the door is inscribed the comic warning, “Bend or bump!”

 

Now my reader may ask me, what is so comic about this warning?  What it means is, “If you don’t bend your head as you enter, you will bump it.”  But that is such a clumsy, cumbersome sentence.  It is so simpler to say, “Bend or bump!” – assuming the object, “your head”.  It is also charming for its alliteration with B, followed by the nasal N or M, and the two short, sharp monosyllables joined by “or”.  It is also necessary, since if the sentence was longer and more explicit, the visitor would have bumped his head by the time he got to the end of the inscribed warning.

 

This is why I find it such a comic warning.  It is comic both in what it says and in what it doesn’t say.  What it does say is so amusingly and abruptly alliterative.  What it doesn’t say is even more amusing, omitting as it does all mention of the head, the very part of the human anatomy most liable to suffer injury from the lintel.  There is even the implication that the head will probably be bumped, as people are so careless, even when they have been warned.  There is also something funny about someone, especially if he is a typical English gentleman, bumping his head.  It is so very undignified!  It makes him abruptly change his public for his private face.  He may feel a little pain in the process, but he is providing us with a welcome occasion for innocent relaxation.

 

“Bend or bump!”  I feel like repeating the words again and again.  They are so harmonious, like everything else in the village.  They are so poetic, conveying their sense in their very sound.  “Bend!” – and you can feel the man, so long as he heeds the warning, bending his head as a sign of humility.  “Or” – and you can feel a tension in the air, the threat of some dire punishment about to befall him if he fails to heed the warning.  Then “bump!” – and you feel the pain even in your own head, as the unheeding visitor hits the lintel with his head.  It is a short, sharp instant of drama.

 

Yet the little drama isn’t so tragic.  It’s only a moment of pain, a bump that hardly leaves a bump, that is, a moment of bumping that leaves no lumpish after-effect.  Then inasmuch as it is no tragedy but a little comedy, the observer outside, like the spectator in the theatre, may well laugh – even while the unseen host within is expressing polite concern.

 

This may also lead us to reflect how closely woven in human life are the issues of comedy and tragedy.  The more closely we are involved in a painful scene, the more tragic it seems, whereas the more removed we are from the scene, the more comic it becomes.  So the whole of human life, when seen from an eternal point of view, may well seem a comedy, or what is called “the human comedy”.  And when God himself is involved in the finale, as in Dante’s mediaeval epic on “the four last things”, it is turned into “the divine comedy”.

 

 

39.       Upon My Sole!

The pun is a peculiar form of humour, consisting in play on similar-sounding words.  It is specially favoured by simple people and by makers of posters, whose appeal is to simple people.  After all, the majority of people, even in England, are simple.  It was also favoured by William Shakespeare, as being a man of the people, and making his invariable, if paradoxical, appeal to simple people.  So it isn’t surprising if he is regarded as the national poet and playwright of the English.

 

On the other hand, the pun hasn’t always been popular, even in England.  Historically speaking, the golden age of the pun more or less coincides with the age of Shakespeare.  But in the age that followed him, the so-called Age of Reason, the pun was not only neglected but even despised. For the Age of Reason was also an age of sophistication, when the simplicity of the countryside was derided and the elaborate wit of the city and court was in fashion.  Then even Shakespeare came under a shadow, as much for his love of puns as for his country manners.  After all, it was asked, can any good come out of Stratford?

 

Fortunately, that Age of Reason has more or less passed away, to be followed by an Age of Nonsense, which is still with us.  Now the pun has come to flourish again.  So the plays of Shakespeare, with all their puns, are again in vogue.  What sort of puns, you may ask, does Shakespeare make?  Well, take a look at the opening scene of Julius Caesar.  It is a crowd scene, and one of the crowd is a simple cobbler who describes himself as “a mender of bad soles”.  His is a trade, he goes on, that he “may use with a safe conscience”.  Here is a typical Shakespearian pun on “sole” and “soul”, with the “sole” below and the “soul” within.  It is such an obvious pun that the dramatist should have been ashamed of making it, save that he may shift the blame onto the shoulders of the cobbler.

 

From this Shakespearian point of view I was once delighted to come upon an echo of this pun on the high street of Dorchester.  I had brought one of my parties of Japanese to this ancient city in the South of England, for the sake not of Shakespeare but of Thomas Hardy.  For here is the heart of the Hardy Country, featured in Hardy’s Wessex novels, culminating in Tess of the Durbervilles.  It may even be said that Dorchester, with the nearby village of Higher Bockhampton, is for Hardy what Stratford, with the nearby village of Shottery, is for Shakespeare.  They were both men of the people, and countrymen, and both were in consequence fond of puns.

 

So you may judge how delighted I was on passing in front of a cobbler’s shop on the High Street of Dorchester, with the punning name, for all the world to see, “Upon my sole!”  When I pointed it out to my companions, they only stared at it with uncomprehending eyes.  So I had to explain the meaning of the pun.  “That is a cobbler’s shop.  A cobbler is one who mends shoes.  He is concerned with the repair of heels and soles, because they are the parts of a shoe that are soonest worn out.  But the word “sole”, for the flat forward part of the shoe, sounds the same as the other word “soul”, for the spirit of man.  This gives us the common English oath, “Upon my soul!” – akin to “Upon my word!” and “Upon my life!” – meaning, “I take my oath upon my soul, or upon the salvation of my soul, that what I have said is true.”  The cobbler, however, may well take an oath on his sole, the sole of his shoe.  And that is a much less dangerous kind of oath, if he is convicted of telling a lie.”

 

It is indeed such a simple, even obvious pun for Englishmen who are familiar with their own language.  It is, moreover, a pun with a special appeal to ordinary Englishmen, especially if they live in the country and are familiar with cobblers.  But for foreigners who come from other lands with other languages there is so much that has to be explained, that even so simple a pun comes to seem difficult and complicated, and by the time the explanation is over, the pun has lost its fresh humour.

 

Anyhow, in modern times who ever goes to the cobbler for the repair of his shoes?  When our shoes are in need of repair, it is so much simpler to throw them away and buy a new pair.  The very word “cobbler” has become unfamiliar.  So when we are confronted with a word like “sole”, we tend to think rather of a certain kind of fish than of the sole of the foot or the shoe.  As for “soul”, especially in conjunction with “salvation”, that has a Christian connotation, which has also come to sound unfamiliar in our modern ears.

 

Anyhow, displayed on the front of this cobbler’s shop in Dorchester is a notable example of English humour and English eccentricity which Shakespeare for one would have relished to the full.  It also affords a useful occasion for an essay on English history and culture.

 

 

40.       Private Property

If there is one thing that most English people take seriously, it is their private property.  We English are a nation of individualists as well as eccentrics.  We prize our privacy and our property.  We are intolerant of all manner of trespassing.  This is why everywhere in the English countryside one comes upon such signs as “No Trespassing!” and “Trespassers will be prosecuted!”

 

Many readers may be astonished at these words.  They may even ask me, “What is the meaning of trespassing?” and “Who is a trespasser?”  Formerly, the word “trespass” bore the general meaning of “sin”, as when we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses.”  But nowadays it is used almost exclusively in the sense of walking over private property without the owner’s permission, and the noun “trespasser” refers to such a walker.  Somehow in the English language “trespassing” comes close, in meaning as in sound, to “transgression”, the word used of the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

 

Now I have a shameful confession to make, as an Englishman.  For I too, like Adam, have often committed the sin of trespassing on the private property of another and so fallen into transgression.  In the days of my boyhood, when we played cricket in the back garden, we would from time to time send the ball into one of our neighbours’ gardens.  Then we would have to climb over the fence to retrieve the ball, without asking any permission.  All the time we were in that garden, we would have the same guilty feeling as Adam had after taking the forbidden fruit.  But boys will be boys!

 

This sin, however, doesn’t belong only to my boyhood.  Even in later years, as a Jesuit student of philosophy, when I was living in the countryside not far from Oxford, I indulged in the same sin on an even larger scale.  From time to time on walks through the countryside we would make our way through the fields.  It was so much more pleasant to walk over the grass than to keep to the asphalted roads.  But the fields belonged to the farmers, and sometimes they were posted with notices against trespassing.  We would, of course, disregard the notices, but sometimes the farmer or his representative would catch us in the very act of trespassing.  “Can’t you read the notice?” they would indignantly demand.

 

Again, I was once leading a group of Japanese round the university of Oxford, and I specially wanted to show them the dining hall of Oriel College, with its portraits of John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold.  But at the entrance to the college we came upon the stern notice, “Not Open to Visitors!”  So I entered the porter’s lodge to ask for the required permission, but no one was around.  So I returned to my group and told them we might take what is called “French leave”, or presumed permission.  We therefore went through the open quadrangle to the dining hall, and there we found another notice, “Not Open to Visitors!”  Still, as we had come so far, I thought it would be a shame to turn back.  The door was open, and in we went, to see what we had come to see.  Only, on our return across the quadrangle we were met by a stern-faced porter.  Can’t you read the notice?” was his indignant demand.  Anyhow, we left him to his indignation and beat a hasty retreat from the college – like Adam expelled from paradise.

 

As may be gathered from these examples, I am not perhaps a typical Englishman.  I am not so serious about the sacredness of private property, perhaps because I have taken a vow of poverty as a Jesuit.  Still, I am not the only exception to this rule.  I am not the only Englishman who can treat the rule of private property as something of a joke.  After all, it is an English principle, frequently observed in English grammar, that for every rule there is an exception, and so it is with the rule of private property.

 

Now let me give an amusing example of just such an exception.  Once again I was with a group of Japanese, this time not in a city like Oxford, nor even in the agricultural countryside, but on a lonely moor in the wilds of Yorkshire.  On all sides there stretched a vast expanse of moor, with no inhabitants save only a few stray sheep.  Nor were there any fences, even by the roadside.  Yet right in the middle of this desert there stood a notice with the single, stark warning, “Private!”  What on earth did it mean?

 

Needless to say, in such a location the word meant nothing.  It was meaningless.  Or rather, it was more than meaningless.  It was a joke!  It struck me as an elaborate instance of irony directed against the serious Englishman’s passion for private property.  I suspected that the notice had been put up by some jovial communist.  Only, communists aren’t usually jovial people.  They aren’t given to such practical jokes.  Anyhow, it proves that I am not the only Englishman to take private property with a proverbial pinch of salt.

 

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