(III) 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 Circular 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 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part III.  Castles in the Air

 

 9.      Another Ruthless King

The kings of England are, alas, noted either for their weakness, of which a notable example is the pious founder of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, Henry VI, or for their ruthlessness, of which an even more notable example is his later namesake, Henry VIII.  Yet another example of the latter type is shown by Edward I, whose ruthless nature was all too well illustrated in his attitude towards the poor people of Wales.

 

This very nature of his I find echoing in my ears from a well-known poem about him by the eighteenth-century English poet, Thomas Gray, entitled “The Bard”.  “Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!” are the opening words of this poem, which I had to learn by heart in my distant schooldays in England, from the pages of the Golden Treasury.  Not content with ruling England alone, which should have been more than enough for one man, Edward was intent on establishing his rule over Wales and Scotland as well.  But, as may well be imagined, neither the Welsh nor the Scots were so keen to have an English king (of French descent) to rule over them.

 

In this poem the resistance of the Welsh is epitomized in the person of the Bard.  Combining in himself the qualities of both poet and prophet, he is depicted as standing on a rock and looking down “o’er old Conway’s foaming flood”.  Conway is the name of a river, the valley through which the river flows, and the formidable castle built near the river’s estuary by Edward as a means of keeping the rebellious Welsh in subjection to his rule.  The castle is only one of many such castles built by King Edward up and down Wales for the same ruthless purpose.  But few of them are so formidable or so awe-inspiring as that of Conway, and few of them have survived in such an intact condition till today.

 

With or without my Japanese companions, I have often been to Conway and looked up at the redoubtable walls of the castle, though without ever venturing to go inside by paying the required admission fee.  Usually, I have been in a hurry to go elsewhere, or I have felt that the castle is impressive enough from the outside.  And it is from the outside that I have been particularly prompted to take a photo of the castle.  It offers so many good angles for such a purpose.

 

If ever a castle was built on firm rock, by a rock-like man, it is surely Conway Castle.  If ever a castle deserved the nickname of “a Castle in the Air”, it is not Conway Castle.  It is so heavy in stone, and so solid in its compact architecture.  Yet on approaching it from the nearby car park, I received a shock, which is aptly illustrated by the accompanying photo.  For from this angle it seemed that the castle, for all its seeming solidity, was resting not on rock but on air, or as Shakespeare would add, on thin air!

 

How could this be?  Not on rock but on air?  Surely I was seeing things!  Surely what I was seeing was only a dark shadow interposed between the walls of the castle above and the rock on which they were built below.  Well, I suppose that is the scientific explanation of the mystery.  Yet I wasn’t just seeing something not there, with an active imagination.  What I was then seeing is recorded for after ages in my photo of the crevice between the rock and the wall.

 

Anyhow, I can’t help seeing something fanciful in the castle as a whole.  For all his ruthlessness, King Edward must have been an incurable romantic – not altogether unlike his Welsh successor, Henry VIII.  Maybe romanticism and ruthlessness go hand in hand together, as we may also see in the French revolutionaries of the eighteenth century.  After all, King Edward had gone on the crusades to the Holy Land before he succeeded to his father’s throne in England.  And what, I ask, were more romantic, or more futile, expeditions in European history than the crusades?  No doubt, when he went on to invade Wales, King Edward had the same romantic idea at the back of his mind.

 

Conway Castle itself was but one of a string of such castles, built by King Edward along the North coast of Wales.  All of them are so romantic, and so futile, as if independent human beings, like the Welsh, can for long be kept in subjection by mere walls.  “Stone walls do not a prison make,” says the cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, “Nor iron bars a cage.”

 

Somehow, when most of Edward’s castles have long since crumbled to the ground, and in spite of that crevice I noticed between the rock and the wall, Conway Castle has succeeded in remaining intact for the best of seven centuries.  It is quite a miracle!  Yet, more than any of his other castles, I regard this as a castle in the air, evoking dreams of the romantic past not only of wars in mediaeval England but also of the crusades in the Holy Land.

 

It is in view of this castle, if only in my imagination, that I recall the stirring notes of the Welsh national anthem, “Land of My Fathers” – rather than the other song, “Men of Harlech”, which refers to another of Edward’s castles on the West coast of Wales.  How strange it is that this pile of stone has the power of evoking such deep Welsh feelings, utterly opposed to those of the ruthless English invader!  And on this point my own feelings are entirely on the side of the poor Welsh against the ruthless English invader – in contrast to my other feelings on the side of the poor English against the ruthless Welsh tyrant.

 

 

10.       Aftermath of a Masque

Those poor Welsh!  How hedged in they are with English castles!  Those ruthless English invaders, from the time of Edward I onwards!  Nor was he the worst of them.  It was no doubt from the English invaders that Henry VIII, himself a Welshman, learnt the lesson of ruthlessness, and showed how well he could better his instruction.

 

Now from Conway in the North of Wales we may turn South to Ludlow on the Eastern border, or “March” as it came to be called.  Here at Ludlow, in the county of Shropshire, was the castle of the Lord of the Marches, and in the reign of Charles I he was the Earl of Bridgwater.  He was also for a time the noble patron of the Puritan poet, John Milton, and for him and his family Milton composed a masque, or musical play on a mythological theme, entitled Comus.

 

So from the grim associations of the word “castle”, which sound all the more grim in the neighbourhood of Wales, we may turn to the name of “Comus”, which has a different kind of association with the word “comedy”.  Komos is the Greek word for a village festival or revel, out of which the old Athenian comedy was developed, especially in the age of Aristophanes towards the end of the fifth century BC.  It seems, therefore, a little paradoxical for Milton to have chosen the grim walls of Ludlow Castle for his presentation of this comedy, the only one of its kind he ever wrote in all his life.

 

His masque, however, wasn’t really a comedy after all.  It may even be termed an anti-comedy.  For the mythological character after whom the masque is named isn’t the hero but the villain of the piece.  It is, in fact, a serious play, as befits the Puritan mind of its author.  It contains a serious moral lesson, warning the family and household of the noble earl against the dangers of excessive revelry personified in Comus.

 

Thus there isn’t much to choose between the grimness of these castle walls and the grimness of this Puritan masque.  They somehow match each other.  No doubt, the production of the masque was welcomed by the earl, as sponsor to the author and his poem.  On the other hand, the grimness of its Puritan meaning was no doubt alleviated by the splendour of the music and costumes that went with it, as well as by the fact that the earl’s own children took their respective parts in it.

 

It was indeed for a festive occasion, after dinner in the great hall, that Milton presented his masque, as though emulating the comedies of his dramatic predecessor William Shakespeare.  Only, as a Puritan, he was turning away from the comic spirit, as cultivated by Shakespeare, to a more serious, even solemn view of life.  In his view there was little room in poetry for comedy or any other kind of humour, except of a harshly satirical nature.

 

Inevitably, when the civil war broke out between King and Parliament a few years later, Milton sided, like all Puritans, with Parliament and the parliamentary army under Oliver Cromwell.  It was that army which in 1646 besieged and partly destroyed Ludlow Castle.  Then the Puritans went on to extend their sway over the whole land and to expel, so far as in them lay, all sounds of merriment and laughter.

 

This is the reason why Ludlow Castle has shared the fate of so many castles, as if following in the footsteps of the abbeys, up and down the face of merry England.  Before, it had been the Lutheran Thomas Cromwell who was chiefly responsible, under Henry VIII, for the ruin of the abbeys.  Now, it was the Puritan Oliver Cromwell who was chiefly responsible for the ruin of the castles.  Thus, with the ruin of both the abbeys and the castles, there disappeared much of the festivity and fantasy of merry England.

 

Only, while lamenting the ruin of Ludlow Castle with its memory of Milton’s masque, I have some words of comfort and even of mirth to add.  As I have said, the castle was indeed destroyed by the parliamentary army, but on the subsequent restoration of King Charles II in 1660 another Lord of the Marches, the Earl of Carbery, came and restored this castle, so as to set up here again his official residence.  He was in turn patron to the anti-Puritan satirist, Samuel Butler, who spent much of his time here writing his mock-epic Hudibras against the Puritans.

 

These ruins may thus be seen as standing on either side of the Great Divide of the seventeenth century, on the one hand the serious Puritan side and on the other the humorous anti-Puritan side.  It was only later on, in the eighteenth century, that the castle fell into the ruins we see today – though today they are preserved from further deterioration by the Office of Works as an important historical monument.

 

Anyhow, the general impression of this castle in ruin is by no means so grim as that of Conway.  Its brownish stones aptly harmonize with the soft green of the surrounding landscape of Shropshire.  There is something even humble and domestic in the approach to the castle over an expanse of a grassy lawn, as though implying that the spirit of comedy has won over that of tragedy, and that the pen, whether Puritan or anti-Puritan, has triumphed over the sword.

 

 

11.       Sheep at a Banquet

Castles belong to the Middle Ages, to the ages of knights in armour and of bold, bad barons.  They are built for war, not for peace.  Or rather, as the Romans of old used to say, if you want peace, prepare for war.  So the presence of a castle in the city or the countryside was an assurance of peace, beside being a warning against possible enemies.  That was, of course, so long as the lord of the castle took the side of the people.

 

With the waning of the Middle Ages and the increasing comforts of domestic life, the lords came out of their castles as being too grim for their own liking.  Instead, they built for themselves comfortable country houses, or stately mansions.  Especially when Henry VIII closed the abbeys and sold them to his courtiers, the latter found the abbey buildings more to their liking than their castles.  Needless to say, they had to make certain improvements in the interests of worldly comfort, in contrast to the monastic profession of penance and prayer.

 

Such was the situation so long as the King remained in absolute power and maintained peace in his realm.  But when his power was challenged by Parliament in the seventeenth century, the lords, who mostly supported the King, found it necessary either to withdraw to their old castles or to fortify their new country houses. And when the forces of Parliament came under the command of the ruthless Puritan commander, Oliver Cromwell, castle after castle, and country house after country house, crumbled into ruin before their onslaught.

 

One such country house, or what is left of it, is still to be seen in the sleepy old-world market town of Chipping Campden in the West Midlands.  The place was once a flourishing centre of the wool trade in the charming hilly district called the Cotswolds.  At the time of the civil war, or the Puritan rebellion, the lord of the manor, Viscount Campden, was a strong supporter of King Charles I against Parliament.  So the time came when the victorious parliamentary army came to Campden House and left it in ruins.

 

It is a typical tragedy of English history.  For the most part, the English are a peace-loving people, except when they come under the rule of ruthless men like Edward I and Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell.  Then some of them take up arms, whether willingly or not, and destroy the peace of everyone else.  And then the destruction of peace comes all too swiftly, leaving ruined buildings behind.

 

Sometimes those buildings are repaired, but in many cases they are left in ruin.  It is too much trouble to repair them, or else involves too much expense.  Then the ruins are taken over by nature, if the form of a variety of plants and animals.  The ruins are covered over with ivy and surrounded by grassy meadows, which invite the sheep of the neighbourhood to move in and graze there – thereby creating an impression of perfect peace.

 

In the course of my literary and historical pilgrimages I have often had occasion to visit Chipping Campden, as it is such a charming place and so conveniently close to Shakespeare’s Stratford.  There we pass in front of the imposing gatehouse to Campden House, but it is a gatehouse without a house.  All that is left of the house are the ruins of the banqueting hall, but there is no hall and no banquet.  All is quiet, except for the bleating of sheep.

 

Yet in another, natural sense, here is a home for the sheep.  Here they are not only bleating but also banqueting on the rich, delicious grass.  Men may come and men may go, houses may rise and houses may fall, but the meadows, and the sheep in the meadows, remain forever, especially in this pastoral district of the Cotswolds.

 

This reminds me of the famous complaint made by the great Sir Thomas More in his Utopia, that in the England of his time the sheep were eating the men.  Yet all the poor sheep were doing is was spending their time eating the grass.  It was the men who were eating each other for the sake of material gain, such as the sheep provide with their wool and the clothing that is made of wool.

 

Anyhow, it is so ironical that this banqueting hall, which once resounded to the revelry and merriment of a nobleman’s household, now resounds only to the bleating of sheep as they graze contentedly on the grass.  It is a paradoxical mixture of the comedy and tragedy that are so characteristic of the human condition.

 

12.       Soldiers on Guard

Not all English castles are in a condition of ruin.  Some, like Conway and Carnarvon in North Wales, are in a good state of repair.  And some, like Warwick Castle near Shakespeare’s Stratford, are still homes of noble families, though since the end of World War II they have been open to the public for a fee.  Yet another, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, has been the home of the Duke of Northumberland from time immemorial, but it isn’t open to the public – so far as I know.

 

Here it is of Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”) that I wish to speak.  For some reason in the course of another of my literary pilgrimages I chose to stay at a hotel in Alnwick, not so much to see the castle as to visit the holy island of Lindisfarne a little further North.  All I knew of Alnwick was that it boasted of this castle belonging to the dukes of Northumberland, and I thought it would be an appropriate place to stay overnight.  Only, I had no idea what kind of castle it was.

 

In fact, we soon noticed something peculiar about it, even without going inside.  That it was still being occupied, without being open to the public, didn’t surprise me.  In England there are all kinds of castles, some grim and others pleasant, some in ruin and others in repair, some open to the public and others still in private hands.  But what we found here, even at the main entrance, I haven’t found anywhere else.  Nor did I expect to find it here either.

 

At first sight, as we came up to the main entrance, we noticed soldiers guarding the battlements.  In a mediaeval setting that should have occasioned no surprise.  We might even have expected the abrupt challenge, “Halt! Who goes there?” – as in the opening lines of Hamlet.  But we were no longer in the Middle Ages, and there seemed to be no reason why any soldiers should have been on the battlements, except possibly taking part in a pageant.  Only, there were no signs of a pageant in progress.

 

Anyhow, we remained unchallenged, however close we came to the entrance, and the soldiers remained motionless, like the Grenadier Guards in front of Buckingham Palace.  There was indeed something uncanny about their lack of movement, and about their size.  They were more like dwarfs in soldiers’ clothing.  On closer inspection, we found they were neither men nor dwarfs but toy soldiers.

 

What an odd idea, I thought, to man the battlements of the gatehouse with toy soldiers, almost as large as men!  Maybe it was the childish whim of a former duke, who had never outgrown his boyish delight in playing with toy soldiers.  Maybe it was his way of contributing to the Gothic revival of the Victorian age.  Maybe he wanted to make his castle different from other castles in England, with something that might impress the most casual visitor. 

 

Well, if any of these guesses are correct, I can’t help admiring the duke, for all his childishness.  Certainly, the sight of these toy soldiers on the battlements of the gatehouse was unusual, arresting, and impressive.  Even without going inside, there was enough to attract our attention on the outside, as something for us to talk about and for me (as I am doing now) to write about.

 

Yes, that duke was a really eccentric Englishman, belonging to a breed that is fast dying out.  He could not only afford to indulge his childish whims, but he didn’t mind if others despised him as eccentric, even by English standards.  We English are admittedly an eccentric nation, or at least we like to think so.  But we are rarely so eccentric as to parade toy soldiers on the battlements of old castles, even if we had both the castles and the soldiers.  We aren’t so eccentric as that!

 

In any case, few of us rise to the exalted social rank of duke.  So we hardly know what form our eccentricity might take if we did.  Maybe we would line the battlements of our castle with as many toy soldiers as a certain Chinese emperor lined his tomb with life-size clay figures of guards.  Maybe if we wished we could arm them with trumpets as well as swords, to blow at certain times of the day.  And maybe the trumpets could be equipped with electronic devices to make the appropriate sounds.

 

Anyhow, there is an inexpressible charm in such eccentricity, especially in these dull days of conformity.  Nowadays in England everyone wants to be doing what everyone else is doing.  And that is so tedious and unimaginative!  Nowadays no one has the courage to do anything different, original or creative. We are such chickens!  At least, we may admire such ducal idiosyncrasy and wish we had the money to indulge in such useless, expensive and outlandish tastes.  We may admire, even if we can’t go and do likewise.

<<Prev <<           >>Next