(XI) ECCENTRIC COUNTRY – ENGLAND

Peter Milward


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 XI.  Floral Folly

 

41.       Anchor in Flower

We don’t usually think of flowers as sharing in the follies of human beings.  Rather, it is the privilege of the latter, endowed as we are with the gift of reason, to be foolish and to exercise our sense of humour on ourselves and others.  As Aristotle says, the power of laughter is intimately associated with the power of reason.  It is by the power of reason that we are enabled to see other things and ourselves objectively, and to realize how ridiculous, how eminently worthy of laughter, we are.  On the other hand, plants and animals, deprived as they are of the power of reason, are sadly deprived of the ability to laugh at us, or at themselves.

 

All the same, we can’t leave the plants entirely to themselves.  For better or worse, they are under the power and dominion of man.  So they come to share in our good and bad qualities.  Especially when they are looked after by human gardeners, they may well look ridiculous, and be made fit objects of laughter – though then it isn’t so much the plants, poor things, as the human gardeners, who deserve to be laughed at.

 

Especially nowadays in England, especially in public parks and gardens, plants of all kinds are being cared for by expert gardeners, as never before.  In my English boyhood before World War II, I don’t remember that parks or gardens were so carefully tended as they are today, maybe because we paid less attention to such signs as “Please Keep Off the Grass!”  I suspect it is because of tourism, which now accounts for a large percentage of England’s GNP, that English gardeners have developed their art of gardening to such an extent.  Indeed, whenever I bring groups of Japanese to the public gardens of some old city, I am always amazed at their skill, nor do I feel the temptation to laugh at it.

 

All the same, as I say, there are exceptions.  Once I was taking my group to the Isle of Wight, and we had to wait for the ferry from the port of Southampton.  For me that port is charged with nostalgia, as it was from there that I set sail for Japan in the summer of 1954.  And now, after an absence of thirty-five years, I was again about to board a ship there, not for distant Japan but for the nearer Isle of Wight.  And there, while we were waiting for our ferry, I caught sight of this floral display representing an anchor.  It was so ingenious, so artificial, and so eccentric.  At first, I was amazed.  Then, when I had recovered my wits, I reached for my camera and took a picture of the display.

 

It wasn’t precisely in a public park or garden.  It was actually facing the road, on an incline above the road, opposite the entrance to the ferry.  It was located in just the right place for our admiration, where we were waiting to board our ferry.  So we had ample time to exercise our admiration, as ships are seldom in a hurry, except just as they are about to weigh anchor, but passengers are expected to be there well ahead of time.

 

As for this floral display, it couldn’t have been more appropriate to us and our purpose.  Here was a floral anchor, and we were waiting for our ferry to weigh anchor.  Or rather, we were waiting to board our ferry, and then it would weigh anchor.  So the flowers seemed to be waiting with us and for us, as though to wish us a floral farewell.

 

What kind of flowers were they?  I regret to say that with the passing of time I have quite forgotten.  Only, as I took a picture of the flowers, I can remember their colours as pink and yellow.  The pink flowers may well have been patience, as through exhorting us to be patient while waiting for the ferry.  Everything to do with the sea takes time, as well as tide, and the sea itself is a symbol of time.  “Like as the waves make for the pebbled shore,” says Shakespeare, “so do our minutes hasten to their end.”

 

Then what were the yellow flowers?  They could have been yellow dahlias, but I suspect they were French marigolds, which are also yellow.  Maybe they were on display not so much for the sake of travelers like ourselves to the nearby Isle of Wight, as for others to the distant coast of France.  Anyhow, I welcomed them as marigolds, the golden flowers dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

 

And what were we doing, going to the Isle of Wight?  It was 1989, exactly a hundred years since the death of the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.  And we were in England on a tour of all the places he had visited and immortalized in his poems.  Two such places, to which I had never been before, were the Isle of Man, with its above-mentioned churches, and this other Isle of Wight, where, as I have already mentioned, the five donkeys had their graves in the precincts of Carisbrooke Castle.

 

This is all very serious, as the anchor itself is a serious appendage to any ship.  But its seriousness was lightened as the anchor was made of flowers.  So instead of laughing at the gardeners, I applauded their ingenious industry.

 

 

42.       Sesame Street

What has Sesame Street got to do with England or English cities?  Nothing, so far as I know.  It is a popular programme for children in America, especially for teachers of English, and that is, I suppose, more important for American than for English children.  Still, whatever is popular in America sooner or later comes across the Atlantic Ocean to England, just as sooner or later it comes across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.  As the old scholastic philosophers used to say, “Goodness is diffusive of itself.”

 

Thus it is that English children, no less than their American and Japanese counterparts, are familiar with the characters of Sesame Street.  And when something is familiar to children, adults, especially English adults, want to cash in on it, both for the amusement of the children and for the lining of their own pockets.  They don’t care whether the thing is originally English or American.  For them it is enough that children like it, and that it is likely to provide them with a good income.

 

Once in the course of a visit to the city of Bath, on one of my literary pilgrimages, some of us made our way to the Parade Gardens just behind Bath Abbey.  We went there for the practical purpose of enjoying a sandwich lunch in the open air beside the river Avon.  But on entering the gardens we momentarily forgot our purposed lunch in astonishment and admiration at a floral display of figures from Sesame Street, with some others such as Paddington Bear.  It was perfectly suited to the tastes of modern English children!

 

I have said it was a floral display, but I should have said it was, paradoxically, a floral display without flowers.  There were no flowers that I could see, but only plants.  And the plants were cut into the shapes of so many strange animals, and with such horticultural skill.  Such an art is, of course, nothing new to the English, who are not for nothing called “a nation of gardeners”.  It goes all the way back to Tudor times, when the English went in for the peculiar art known as “topiary” – that is, cutting hedges into shapes of birds and animals.  But this display of Sesame Street exceeded anything I had seen in old Tudor gardens.  It was quite unique.

 

In front of the display one could read the words, also part of the floral pattern, “The Floral City Champion”.  No doubt, there had been a competition among various groups in the city of Bath, and this display of Sesame Street had won the first prize.  What a good idea!  To arouse a healthy spirit of competition among various groups, so as to display the best in the Parade Gardens for the benefit of tourists like ourselves.  I am all in favour of such competition, especially when I can enjoy the results of it for myself and my Japanese companions.

 

Around the display there were colourful deck-chairs for the convenience of people like ourselves wishing to rest in the gardens and take a picnic lunch.  They provided an acceptable background to the display.  But my eyes remained arrested by the floral figures, and I wondered about the response they evoked among childish observers – though there were more adults than children in the gardens.

 

“Look, mummie! The cookie monster!” and “Oh, look, Paddington Bear!”  One delighted “Oh!” after another from the mouth of one child after another.  So the floral display in the Gardens becomes the talk of Bath.  And so the hearts of all adults in Bath return to the hearts of their children.  I myself felt I had come to the wrong place in the wrong company, since we were all adults.  Even my Japanese companions were unable to put the correct names to the animal forms we beheld.  It struck me that we had come, all unsuspecting, to an English Disneyland, and at the entrance we might  well have read the stern notice, “Adults not admitted, except in company with children!”

 

Sesame Street may not be English in origin.  But the whole vogue of children’s literature and children’s entertainment, of which Sesame Street is a recent phenomenon, comes out of England.  It is all part of the modern cult of Nonsense which has arisen by way of reaction to the old-fashioned Age of Reason.  Even when children’s literature is serious in its own way, it is still nonsensical from an adult point of view, not least the weird animals in Sesame Street.  That programme is perfectly nonsensical, and so perfectly adapted to the eccentricity of Englishmen, of all ages from seven to seventy.

 

So I conclude that the Parade Gardens with their floral display aptly counterbalance the adult artificiality of the city of Bath, even as the Age of Nonsense has aptly succeeded the Age of Reason.

 

 

43.  Floral Time

What is the time of flowers?  Can they tell the time?  The only time they know is, I suppose, the time of the seasons, as they bud in early spring, come to flower in summer, bring forth fruit and seed in autumn, and fall in winter.  Then they are also aware of the rising and setting of the sun – to such an extent that some flowers, like the daisy, are unwilling to show their face if the sun isn’t shining.

 

But what do flowers know of hours and minutes, by which we human beings, especially in cities, tell the time?  What have flowers got to do with clocks?  After all, clocks are such an artificial, human invention, made for busy human beings who have to be punctual to the last minute.  Men in cities are ruled by clocks and watches, but men in the country, at least up till the Middle Ages, were ruled, like the flowers, by the movement of the sun and the changes of the seasons.

 

Still, men in cities are loath to leave the flowers in their natural condition.  They realize the lack of nature in city life together with their need of plants and flowers – the restful green of plants and the varied colours of flowers – “for a beautiful human life”.  So they want to bring as much of nature as possible into their artificial city lives.  Only, when they bring nature into their city lives, they can’t leave it in its natural condition.  They have to make nature as neat and tame and artificial as themselves.

 

So it is with clocks.  In addition to the usual mechanical clocks like Big Ben, the city fathers, with the help of their skilled gardeners, have here and there devised what are called floral clocks.  These are, of course, mechanical clocks, but their mechanism isn’t so obvious as in other clocks.  For the hands that move round and the face of the clock round which they move and the numbers that tell the hours and minutes are all made of flowers.  It is indeed a fascinating device!

 

Such a device I once came upon in the course of a visit to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.  The Scots are, as I have said, a logical people, and this device of theirs is a charming expression of their logical, mechanical bent of mind.  For if they are rational in the city of Edinburgh, they are also close to some of the loveliest scenery in the world, in the Scottish Highlands.   And so in their own capital they bring that beauty of nature neatly adapted to their logical minds to the public gardens, known as the Princes Street Gardens, that divide the old from the new city.

 

Not that this floral clock is unique to the city of Edinburgh.  I have myself come upon other such floral clocks, and not only in Scotland.  It is after all such a fascinating idea that, once someone has thought about it and put it into effect, other people are sure to follow it.  I don’t even know if this floral clock in Edinburgh is the first of its kind, or if the first inventor was a Scotsman.  Only, it strikes me as very appropriate to the city of Edinburgh and the character of the Scots.

 

This is, moreover, just the sort of idea that appeals to the eyes and mind of a child.  Children like things that are not only pretty but also moving.  And this floral clock, unlike the Sesame Street animals in Bath, is always on the move, if slowly on the move as befits a clock.  You have to stand in front of it and keep watching it, and gradually you can see the minute hand moving.

 

“I gazed, and gazed, but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought.”  Wordsworth was gazing on the daffodils by the shore of Ullswater in the Lake District.  I, too, had much the same feeling as I gazed, and gazed, on this floral clock in the descent from the old to the new city of Edinburgh.  As luck would have it, it was situated close to the spot assigned for us to pick up our coach after our sightseeing tour of the old city, and as I had come to the spot well in advance of the time assigned, I was able to feed my eyes on the sight to my heart’s content.

 

“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore....”  As I watched the hands of the clock, I called to mind those words of Shakespeare.  I also felt myself looking not only at the plants and flowers of which the floral clock was made, but also at the waves of the distant sea.  Everything spoke to me of the steady, unrelenting passage of time, which is also echoed deep within me, in the beating of my human heart.

 

Then, “Hurry up please, it’s time!” came the sudden call of our tour conductor on my ears, and I was rudely awakened from my reverie.

 

 

44.   British Bonsai

The English are closer in spirit to the Japanese than one might think.  At least, they are more so than one is led to think by the caricatures of what is “typically English” and “typically Japanese”.  For example, the Japanese are often led to think of the typical Englishman as “John Bull”.  But I must confess that I have never seen an Englishman like John Bull, except perhaps for Sir Winston Churchill – and I never set eyes on Churchill in all my life.  On our side, we English are often led to think of the typical Japanese as little yellow men with slanting eyes ever bowing and murmuring, “Me vellee (something or other)” – in pidgin English.  But in all my life in Japan I have never come upon such a Japanese.

 

For example, in Japan I find my Japanese students thinking of certain trees and flowers as typically Japanese.  They are so surprised when I show them slides of England with those very trees and flowers.  Here is a cherry-tree in blossom, and here is a weeping willow.  There is a hydrangea, and there are red maple-leaves.  “What!” they exclaim, “are those trees and flowers to be found even in England?”  The students are so convinced that the plants are typically Japanese and can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.  Some of them are even under the impression that only in Japan are there four seasons in the year.

 

Naturally, they are so surprised when I show them my slide of mediaeval sumo in Thurgarton, of which I have already made mention.  And now I come to another peculiar art of the Japanese that has existed, I make bold to say, from time immemorial not so much in little England as in the wider – I almost said “wilder” – and older island of Britannia. 

 

In this connection, however, I have an important distinction to draw between the Japanese art and the more natural phenomenon that is to be seen here and there in Britain.  In Japan the art of bonsai, or the training of large trees in small pots to the stunting of their natural growth, is a highly elaborate one, like so many of the other arts practised in that country.  In Britain, however, the phenomenon I am about to describe is perfectly natural and owes nothing to human art, though it may look too natural to be true.

 

One day I was driving with another group of Japanese on our way to Morwenstow – the same day as we came upon the strange figure-head of Perseus in the churchyard.  It was a narrow, winding road, with occasional views of the sea – the Bristol Channel – to the right.  There weren’t so many trees or other forms of plant life.  Those we did come upon were so stunted, ever blown by the sea breezes in the same direction.  The trees were mostly oaks, and as they began to take on weirder and weirder forms, I stood beside our driver with my camera at the ready, and sure enough, I managed to take one, the weirdest of them all.

 

There, framed in the window of our coach, was a perfect British bonsai – not Japanese and not artificial, but British and natural.  It hadn’t been made by any human hand, but produced by the continual blowing of sea breezes from the West.  The poor oak-tree was quite twisted, but twisted in a natural way that made it seem quite artistic – and quite Japanese.  I was quite astonished, and so are my Japanese students when I show them the slide in the classroom.

 

This makes me wonder about a possible experiment that Japanese bonsai artists might well try – if they haven’t tried it already.  Let them take one of their potted trees, while it is still tender, and all the time they are training it, let them place an electric fan – instead of the sea breezes – to one side, keeping it on for weeks or months on end.  It may be a waste of electricity, but no more than the Japanese are always wasting on a much larger scale.  So that is no problem.  Then they can produce by art what the sea breezes in Cornwall are producing in a natural manner.  After all, what is art but an imitation of nature?

 

Such, I might add, are some of the natural phenomena that may help to explain something of the eccentricity of the English – though in this case the phenomenon occurred just over the boundary from Devon to Cornwall, that is to say, from England to Britain.

 

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