Peter Milward

Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008




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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









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Part I.  Ancient Eccentricities 


1.       The Whale Stone

“Man is a risible animal”, says the wise Greek Aristotle – in all seriousness.  That is to say, man can laugh – if with some emphasis on “can”.  For when we peruse the records of past ages, we rarely come upon signs of this faculty.  People in ancient times seem to have been so very serious.  And all too many people still are even in modern times.  Perhaps it was because life was for them so very serious – as it still is for all too many people today.  When one is faced with danger all the time, one has, alas, little leisure for laughter.


On the other hand, it may be pointed out that the records of past ages are pitifully incomplete.  For the most part, they deal with the serious affairs of men, and so leisure and laughter are suffered to remain without record.  Even in what is recorded, we often have to read between the lines to find the traces of human laughter, by which we may distinguish human beings from animals.


Take, for instance, the oldest surviving monument in Britain, or at least one of the oldest, Stonehenge.  It is, no doubt, a record of something, whether of the religion or the astronomy of those ancient times, some three millennia ago.  But we have long since lost the clue for reading that record, and so it remains a mystery.  The laughter connected with the ruin is rather to be attached to modern attempts to solve its mystery, or to cash in on that mystery in the name of “witchcraft”.


Yet in the ruin itself, as it has come down to us from distant antiquity, I recognize sure signs of laughter.  I find them not so much in the great circle of stone itself as in one lonely stone separated from the others at a certain distance.  Whenever I go to Stonehenge – and I have been there many times, invariably with a group of Japanese – I am invariably drawn to this stone, rather than to the inner circle.  Why?


One reason is that, to visit the circle, one has to pay an exorbitant admission fee, and as I have already seen the circle many times and am reluctant to part with unnecessary money, I choose to stay outside on the highway.  Yet even from the highway I find I can get as good a view of the ruin as those who have paid the admission fee, particularly as the circle itself is now roped away from the spectators.  What is more, the lonely stone of which I am now speaking stands conveniently close to the highway, as though offering me its company while my Japanese followers pay to go inside.


What is even more, the company of this stone is all the more agreeable to me as I find in it an unexpected sense of humour.  In the guide-book it is called “the Keel Stone”, whatever that may mean, but I prefer to think of it as “the Whale Stone”.  The way it seems to be leaping upwards out of the surrounding grass, it looks just like a whale jumping up out of the surrounding sea.  It even has a recognizable face, with mouth and nose and two eyes, as well as a conical head.


Whales are, of course, intrinsically comical creatures.  They even seem to take delight in their comical appearance, and in provoking human beings to laughter.  They are created, one might even say, for play, and so it is said of leviathan, who is often identified as the whale, that God created him for his entertainment (in Psalm civ).  Nor is this stone whale an exception.  His expression is charged with laughter, whatever the weather may be.


But only from one side.  For this whale is eccentric even in his laughter.  From one side – though I can never remember from which side – he is clearly laughing.  The corner of his mouth turns upwards in an unmistakable manifestation of humour.  Nor is it only I who notice this manifestation, but I have only to point it out to others, and they immediately agree with me.  Yes, there isn’t any doubt, the whale is laughing, in delight at his skill in jumping out of the sea of grass.


Go to his other side, however, and you will find something altogether different.  Now he is no longer laughing, with an upward curve at the corner of his mouth.  Now he is no less unmistakably weeping, with a downward curve at the other corner of his mouth.  Why is he weeping?  Maybe because he has jumped too far and he can’t rise any farther, nor can he sink back into his sea of grass.  His is an eternally arrested movement, an eternally frustrated movement, as if he has been bewitched.  Poor whale!


Thus the Whale Stone may be regarded as an epitome of eccentricity, coming down to us from a time when we hardly think of anyone as eccentric or humorous or even capable of laughter.  He may have the shape of a whale, but he is out of his watery element in the solid earth, with the grass of Salisbury Plain all round him.  In his expression he is at once laughing and weeping, with the two corners of his mouth curving the one upwards and the other downwards.  Yet one cannot see both sides of his mouth at once.  As one walks along the highway, one notices first the laughing side, and then – on turning and looking back – the weeping side.  It is all very incongruous, with an incongruity which is the very definition of humour.


2.       Mysticism in Cows

Stonehenge isn’t the only prehistoric stone circle in Britain.  It may be the most famous, but it isn’t altogether unique.  Even in the vicinity of Stonehenge one may visit another such circle within the same afternoon.  It is less famous but none the less impressive.  What I find particularly impressive about it is that, unlike the stones of Stonehenge, the stones are here uncut but still huge.  What is more, one has here to pay no admission fee.


These are the stones of Avebury Ring.  The huge monoliths stand apart from each other but still in a wide circle, and outside the circle, more evident than at Stonehenge, there is a grassy ditch and rampart.  Here the highway, instead of skirting the circle, runs right through it into the charming old-world village of Avebury.


The huge stones seem to be sleeping in the afternoon silence.  Here there is no separate stone outside the circle, corresponding to the Whale Stone at Stonehenge.  So one might think there is nothing eccentric about them, nothing that stands markedly out of the centre, whether in the literal or the metaphorical meaning of “eccentric”.  All seems to be normal, at least insofar as anything prehistoric may be said to be normal.


Yet when I first visited these stones with my Japanese companions, I did find something eccentric or abnormal about them.  Note, not in them but about them.  For the field in which they were standing I found was being used as pasture by cows.  There the cows were squatting and chewing the cud in cowish contemplation.  Only, they weren’t facing those monuments, whether as objects of antiquarian interest or (in the words of Shakespeare) as “husks and formless ruin of oblivion”.  They were more intent on the green grass around them, or rather on what remained of that grass inside them.


It was something in the absurdity of this contrast that impressed me.  Here were these ancient stones, hardly less memorable than those of Stonehenge, deserving of the attention of every passer-by.  But the cows weren’t passers-by.  Anyhow, in their scale of values no stone, however ancient or memorable, can be compared to grass.  Are the stones edible?  Are they in any way of bovine interest?  Do they figure in any scale of bovine values?  No.  But grass is edible, at least for cows.  It is a principal ingredient of bovine nutrition, a function which no stone, however ancient or memorable, is capable of fulfilling.  So for them grass had the preference.


Squatting as they were with their backs turned to these ancient stones, the cows even seemed to be despising them.  They even seemed to be ridiculing the folly of human beings in setting so high a value on such worthless objects.  “First things first,” they seemed to be saying, and “Meals before monuments”.


Of course, we human beings may in turn despise those uneducated cows for their blissful ignorance of human culture, for the way they greedily put their stomachs first and have no eyes for the landscape around them.  Those stones might be part of a great palace, for all they care, or carved out of precious stones.  Towards them they show nothing but bovine indifference.  Nor can I find it in my heart to disagree with them.


Yes, I even agree with them.  For I, too, am a Cow.  At least, I was born in the Year of the Cow, in the last year of the Emperor Taisho, and so I think I can to some extent enter into the feelings of cows.  How do cows, I may be asked, express their feelings?  Well, let me put the question to one of them.  What does she say?  “Moo-moo!” – at least to my English ears.  And that is her one answer to my every question.  It is the one way she has of expressing her inmost feelings.  It may be called the Way of the Cow.


This is indeed a mystical way.  For what does the word “mystical” mean but the pronouncing of the sound “m” with closed lips, referring to a secret which is not to be uttered in profane hearing.  That is the only sound cows ever make, and they make it all the time, especially when they wish to express their inmost feelings.  It is as if all the time they are saying “Nothing”, in the form of “m”, and in that “Nothing”, as Shakespeare says, they find “all things”.


In the large brown eyes of the cows what are all the works of men, such as Stonehenge and Avebury Ring, but that?  But what?  But nothing.  For them of far greater significance is the green grass around them, on which they are squatting, as though occupying, and which they are slowly munching and making their own.  The stones aren’t merely inedible, and unrelated to the stomach.  They aren’t living things at all, but dead things.  The grass, however, is alive and higher in the order of being than any stones, however ancient or memorable they may seem in the eyes of doting antiquarians. 


What is more, the grass is green, and green is the colour of rest and relaxation, a colour of whose importance we are at last becoming conscious in this age of stress and stupidity.  The grass symbolizes the poetic ideal of the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, while taking delight in his Garden, “in a green thought, in a green shade”.  With this ideal, I am sure, every cow stands or squats in full agreement.  They well know what is good for them, and that, I may add, is also good for human beings – at least for our rest and relaxation, if not for our nutrition.


3.       The Stone Dance

What is there in common, I may be asked, between such ancient stones as those of Stonehenge and Avebury Ring and a dance?  Can the stones dance?  Or do they provide human beings with an occasion for dancing round them in a circle?


One can indeed think of all kinds of connections between these stones and a dance.  First, the very setting of the stones in the form of a circle seems to suggest, and even to recommend, a circular dance.  How easy it is to imagine the stones coming to life at midnight and holding hands, when no human beings are watching!  One may see them moving now this way, now that way, in a slow, stately measure.  It may well be called “the Dance of the Stones”.


Why not?  This isn’t just a private fantasy of mine.  We may not know much about these stones, but our theories about them focus on two points that may well converge on one, astronomy and religion.  And when we compare these two points together, in terms of astronomical religion, we find ourselves almost inevitably thinking of what is called “the Cosmic Dance”.   According to this venerable theory, everything in the heavens above and on the earth beneath is involved in a vast cosmic dance, which is naturally circular.


Maybe that is why these stones are invariably set in a circular pattern, suggestive of the circular movement observed among the stars above.  It seems as if they are forever going round and round, only in a movement that is forever arrested in a moment of time.  At Stonehenge they are even holding hands, according to a symbolism that may be seen in the horizontal stones joining the vertical ones together.


Now, however, I am thinking of yet another Stone Circle, situated in the North of England among the mountains of the Lake District.  Here the stones are smaller and uncut, but they are all the more impressive in their mountainous setting.  Here I am reminded not only of a solemn dance, but also of a line of teeth set in a wide open mouth.  And here it is as if the dancers are personified not only as individual dancers going round in a circle, but also as an individual human mouth crying to heaven.  Then, just as the dancers are in a state of arrested movement, so the mouth is in a condition of suppressed excitement.


One summer I was visiting these stones with a group of Japanese and admiring their natural and antiquely artificial beauty.  We were also taking our midday meal beside the stones, as a practical way of communing with them, in their stillness and their silence.  Then it was that one of the Japanese, on finishing her lunch, felt inspired to leap upon one of the stones in the manner of a ballet dancer.  I had told her nothing of my musings on the subject of a cosmic dance, but she seemed to have felt the unspoken invitation of the stones to “come and join the dance”.


There was something so funny about her action that we couldn’t help laughing at her.  And the same reaction of laughter is evoked whenever I show my students in class the slide I took of her at that moment.  But it is, I hasten to add, a laughter not of derision but of sympathy.  It is a laughter of delighted surprise.


By themselves the stones, standing as they do in their circle, seem so still and so silent, as is the custom of “rocks and stones and trees”.  But the sudden action of this girl in jumping up and performing her little ballet on top of them served to bring them to life.  To the rocky circle it added something human, making her as though the leader of the stones in their never-ending dance.  It added something not only human but also humorous.  For what is human is also humorous, especially in such a solemn setting of prehistoric ruins.


Her action may even, it seems to me, be compared to that of the little frog jumping – as the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho says – into an ancient pond.  The pond is so solemn and so silent in its prehistoric time, it seems a sacrilege to disturb it.  But the little frog has no concern for such a superstitious feeling.  Rather, in his wide eyes the solemnity and silence of the pond offer an invitation to break the silence with his noise, the solemnity with his fun.  So without further ado, in he jumps.  There is a plop, the sound of water.  And so he gives rise, through the pen of the poet, to one of the most memorable lines in Japanese poetry.


And so, I may add, my student, by obeying her impulse to dance on the stone, has given rise, through my poor pen, to this essay on her performance – as it were a glimpse of eternity in the still world of time.


4.  A Dark Lighthouse

In Japan it is commonly said that the foot of a lampstand is dark.  But if the lamp isn’t lit, the whole lampstand may be shrouded in darkness.  The same may be said of a lighthouse.  Its function is to give a welcome light of warning to ships at sea.  But if it remains dark, the ships may run aground and be wrecked on the rocks or get stuck in a treacherous sandbank.


Such a dark lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in Britain.  It may well be excused for no longer giving out any light, as it goes back over two millennia to Roman times.  It stands within the precincts of Dover Castle, on a hill from which one may see the coast of France on a fine day, on the opposite side of the Straits of Dover.  In ancient times it occupied a strategic position, between the English Channel and the North Sea.  But today it has long since been replaced by a more modern and efficient lighthouse.


Nowadays this Roman lighthouse no longer serves a useful function – in the modern meaning of usefulness.  In a wider sense, however, which admits of paradox and contradiction, it is useful even in its seeming uselessness.  It may no longer throw light on the Straits as they are at present.  It may remain altogether shrouded in darkness both at night and in a fog.  But it continues, by its presence, to throw light on the past – if only by reminding us of those remote ages when it served a useful purpose for the Romans.


Thus the lighthouse is at once informative and serious about the instruction it gives.  But, what is no less important, I find something entertaining about it – according to the Renaissance ideal of literature and art that they should at once instruct and entertain.  Then, I may be asked, what kind of entertainment can this ruin of a lighthouse give us today?


Well, as Shakespeare says of another famous ghost from the past, “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Also, as we say, “Fact is stranger than fiction.”  In fact, I once found in this ruin a splendid opportunity of entertainment, an opportunity that few people may ever have found in it.


Once I was visiting this castle with another group of Japanese.  It was a typically cold day in an English summer, and a sea fog had come and settled over the ruin.  After entering the castle precincts I led my Japanese through the murky air, knowing my way from previous visits to the castle.  And soon, looming in front of us, like a ghost out of the past, we came upon the lighthouse.  There was something quite terrifying about it.


There and then, taking advantage of the terror in the minds of those Japanese, I recited the fearful words of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in an appropriately fearful voice, “I am the ghost of thy father, Hamlet, doomed for a certain time to walk the earth, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purg’d away.”  As soon as I uttered these words, the Japanese with me were quite terrified, as if I were a real ghost speaking to them, or as if my words spoken in such a voice might serve to call up fearful phantoms of the past.  Needless to say, their momentary reaction of terror soon gave place to one of laughter.


I wondered if Shakespeare himself had been to that spot.  Dover Castle might have stood so well in place of the original castle of Elsinore, where it is thought that Hamlet encountered the ghost.  What is more, on the other side of the bay there was a cliff named Shakespeare Cliff – though it takes its name not from Hamlet but from another incident in King Lear.  One even feels the ghost of Shakespeare himself hovering over the ruins!


Anyhow, it takes but a little imagination to derive from these ruins not only instruction but also entertainment, as well as humour.  After all, how many scenes from the past have been witnessed by this dark lighthouse during two millennia!  Not only tragic scenes, such as we may imagine from the setting of an old castle shrouded in fog, but also comic scenes, which are the stuff of daily life.  Even Hamlet, which we usually think of as a tragedy from its tragic ending, includes not a few comic scenes.  Even the ghost, once he has disappeared, is made fun of by Hamlet himself.  Indeed, one may say there is nothing so tragic in human life but may subserve a comic purpose.

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