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 V.  Holy Follies


17.       Converging Lines

Henry VIII didn’t destroy everything in the English Church.  He did dissolve all the abbeys and other religious houses, but he left intact a few of the abbey churches as parish churches or cathedrals.  As for the other churches and cathedrals, he left them more or less intact as well.  Otherwise, he would have been head of a church without a body!


This is why among the English cathedrals we come upon not a few monastic remains adjoining them.  Once they were abbey churches, or cathedrals with abbeys attached to them.  Such, for example, is Ely cathedral to the North of Cambridge in what is called the Fen District.  Next to the cathedral was an ancient abbey, now a ruin except for those buildings which came to be used for secular purposes.


Not all cathedrals in England are built along the same lines.  Each is unique in its own way.  So it is endlessly interesting to go on pilgrimage from one to another, as I have frequently done, noting the peculiarities of each.  Among them all, however, I can confidently say that none is like Ely.  This isn’t merely unique.  It can only be called “uniquely unique”.


Insofar as we English may claim to be a nation of eccentrics, we may well point to Ely in support of our claim.  First, as you approach the cathedral from the West, the two towers of the West front come into view, one – higher than the other – in the middle, and the other to the right.  But there is no balancing tower to the left, leaving a glaring lack of symmetry or balance.  Why?  Because, I understand, there happened to be a lack of funds for building the matching tower.  Then, even when they had the funds, they left the front without a tower to the left, recognizing that the lack of symmetry constituted one of the peculiar charms of the building.


Further, when you walk past the tower to the right, you notice something else that strikes you as strange.  On closer inspection, you find that the tower isn’t upright but leaning to one side, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the chimney of Shandy Hall in Coxwold.  Presumably it has been leaning like this from the time it was first built in the twelfth century.


Then, when you go inside, you may think you have entered a typical Norman church with thick, rounded arches and a painted, wooden roof.  But when you walk up to the chancel of the cathedral, and stand between the two transepts, you may look up and see what is most extraordinary about it.  For here you are, surrounded by eight solid pillars supporting a unique octagonal lantern high above.


In my guide-book I find this lantern described as “perhaps the most beautiful and original design to be found in the whole range of Gothic architecture”.  It is beautiful, especially when the sun’s rays come flooding through the windows high up inside the lantern.  It is beautiful, not only for the light, as one expects of a lantern, but also for the concentric lines of the arches as they rise upwards and converge in the octagon at the foot of the lantern, before rising upwards again inside the lantern and meeting at the topmost point in the centre.


Here the word I would like to emphasize is “original”.  Or maybe, as I have called the cathedral itself “uniquely unique”, I should now say “originally original”.  For which other architect in Christendom, whether English or foreign, whether mediaeval or modern, has ever entertained such an original conception of light and line?  To this one, named Alan of Walsingham, who lived in the age of Chaucer, I would present the palm for unique originality.  No other architect can compare with him, not even Anthony Gaudi in twentieth-century Spain.


He was, moreover, paradoxically original, in that his design was never part of the original plan for the building.  It was only when the central tower fell down in ruin that Alan was invited to repair it.  Then this design of his was a great improvement on the earlier tower, not only because it has survived till this day, but also because it is so different from any other design and so breath-takingly beautiful in itself.


With Alan I have only one quarrel.  In order to appreciate his originality in this lantern, the only way you can look is upwards.  Then you have to crane your neck, and before you realize it, you begin to feel pain in your neck muscles.  The only way to appreciate this masterpiece of his is to lie down on the cold stone floor, so that you may go on looking upwards without causing permanent injury to your neck.  That, however, would invite the surprised attention of other visitors to the cathedral.  Then, the only way left is for you to fling aside all human respect and lie down – till an official comes and tells you to get up.


There is yet another point of eccentricity I have to note about this cathedral.  You notice it when you go outside and see the whole length of the building from the Dean’s Park.  Then it seems to be divided into two separate buildings by the trees.  Even when someone tells you they are the same building, you can hardly believe your ears, it looks so long.  Still, from the same park you can usually see a herd of cows in the foreground, and they help to make this strange, elongated building somehow seem less strange.  Such is the power of the cow!



18.       People on Pinnacles

Proceeding North from Ely, one passes what used to be interminable fens, but they have long since been drained.  Now they aren’t so fenny as they used to be.  Then from East Anglia one enters the ancient county of Lincoln, familiar for its Lincoln Green, which was formerly the distinctive colour of Robin Hood and his merry men.  Here one comes to the next cathedral of Lincoln, which may also claim to be unique in its own way.


As with Ely, yet unlike Ely, there are so many things that are unique about this cathedral.   Once you set eyes on it, especially after having visited a number of other cathedrals in England, your impression is no doubt one of soaring height, immensity and originality.  Unlike Ely, its design is perfectly balanced, with two soaring West towers and a third central tower that soars even higher.  What is more, the pinnacles at the corners of each tower are tipped with points of lead, which I can’t remember having noticed on any other cathedral tower.


Then, not content with these twelve pinnacles on the three towers, the inspired builder of this cathedral went on to add two more pinnacles at either end of the West front or façade of the building.  And then, instead of tipping them with lead, he put on top of them matching statues of stone.  One is the statue of the bishop, Hugh of Lincoln, who founded the cathedral in the Gothic period, and the other is that of a poor swineherd, who helped to fund it with his meagre savings.


On seeing these statues on opposite pinnacles, my first impression was one of vertigo.  I couldn’t help imagining how I would feel if I were standing on one or other of the pinnacles.  The very imagination made me feel dizzy.  Of course, they are carved in stone, and they have no such feeling.  But they look so lifelike, I can’t help wondering how they feel up there, and how I would feel if I were in their situation.


My second impression, however, was more serious and less dependent on the imagination.  It was only natural, after all, for one of the statues to represent the saintly bishop who founded the cathedral and brought it to a successful completion in the Gothic style.  It is the sort of statue we are accustomed to seeing in old churches, though we are less accustomed to seeing it on one of the pinnacles outside the church.  But what is much less usual is to see the statue of an uncanonized and anonymous swineherd on another pinnacle, as though on the same democratic level as his bishop.  This is for me something both original and charmingly unique.


It is also for me a proof of the essential democracy of the Christian Church.  On the one hand, we have a hierarchy of priests and bishops under the Pope in Rome, but on the other hand, in the eyes of God all men are equal and even a swineherd is as good as any bishop or pope, or even better.  As for this swineherd, whose very name is unknown, he gave all his meagre savings – like the poor widow with her mite in Luke’s Gospel – for the building of this church.  So he fully deserves his place of eminence.


Nor is that all.  There is something even more unique about this cathedral – as you may notice when you go inside.  In the choir, surrounding the high altar, there are so many angels carved on the wooden screen behind the stalls of the cathedral canons, that it is called the Angel Choir.  Then among the angels, but a little apart from them, in between two arches above one pillar, you may notice not an angel but a little devil.  He is famous as the Imp of Lincoln.  There he sits, with one leg crossed impishly over the other, looking perfectly at home inside this house of God.  As an imp, he may be a kind of devil, but he is charmingly mischievous and altogether unique.  No wonder the soccer team of the city is known as “the Imps of Lincoln”!


In order to appreciate all this uniqueness, however, it isn’t enough to go round the cathedral with a guide or a guide-book, noting all the monuments inside and outside.  You have to go some distance away, to the nearby castle, and climb up to the battlements on either side of the main gate.  From that point of vantage you may see how the cathedral soars above the roofs of the city, with its three towers and twelve pinnacles pointed with lead.  There, in front of it you can see how well the statues of bishop and swineherd match each other on either side of the imposing façade.  It may well be called a miracle in stone!



19.       An Inclining Chancel

What is a chancel?  It has nothing to do with chance, but more with providence, especially divine providence.  To put it in plainer terms, it is that part of a church which is set aside for the clergy round the altar.  It is also called the sanctuary.  It stands in contrast with the nave, which is the other part of the church set aside for the laity or the faithful in general.


In the traditional structure of a church there is much symbolism implied.  For example, the word “nave” comes from the Latin for ship, navis, according to the old comparison of the church to a ship, or barque of Peter.  At the same time, churches in the Middle Ages were commonly built in the form of a cross, recalling the cross of Christ, with a main body (the nave), two arms (the transepts), and the head (the chancel).  So they were conformed not only to the cross on which Christ was nailed but also to the body which was nailed to the cross.  For the church is also seen, from the time of Paul, as the mystical body of Christ.


Only the larger churches or cathedrals, however, were able to express all this symbolism.  Very often the smaller ones had to do without the transepts, or cross sections, which weren’t so necessary for practical purposes.  Yet with the basic distinction between chancel and nave, for head and body, the idea of the cross of Christ remained, even if the arms were shortened or altogether omitted.


On the West coast of Wales, near the seaside town of Barmouth, where I used to spend my summer holidays, there is a charming example of this traditional symbolism in the local church.  It is an old mediaeval church standing by itself on the seashore, while the waves in the background provide a continual and vocal reminder of man’s mortality.  As Shakespeare says, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.”  The church is full of atmosphere, both in its outward appearance to the eyes and in its inner harmony of sound to the ears.


What is chiefly unique in this church, however, isn’t just its location.  Not a few churches, I suppose, have such a setting on the seashore with a background of breaking waves.  But this church is unique in its structure.  As I have remarked about smaller churches, this has no transepts for the arms of Christ but only the main distinction of head and body.  Now it is in connection with the head, or chancel, of this church that I have found something both charming and unique.  For this chancel isn’t just a structural continuation of the nave, as with most other churches, but it is built at a noticeable angle to the nave.


Why is this?  What is the point of the angle?  Is it just that the old builders had no instruments to guide their building, and so they had to follow their instincts and the lie of the land?  After all, one notices much the same charming irregularity in the pillars and arches of the nave.  I say “charming”, because I regard any departure from the dullness of Euclidian geometry as commendable – so long as the structure endures.  Nature is invariably irregular, even in her regularity, whereas geometry comes from the artificial, narrow reason of the human mind.


Anyhow, quite apart from the irregularity of nature and the erratic instinct of the ancient builders, there is another, objective reason for the odd angle.  It is to be found in the words of John’s Gospel concerning the death of Christ on the cross, “He bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (or breath of life).  These words of his are sometimes interpreted as bowing not forward but to one side, as we may see in many paintings or carvings of the crucifixion.


In the case of this church, therefore, the builders must have got the idea from such representations to set the chancel of the church at an angle from the nave.  It thus depicts the head of Christ bowed or inclined to one side after his death on the cross.  It is a charming thought, and all the more charming in this tangible form of the little church at Barmouth, rocked by the unending sound of the waves of time in the background.


Now I come to think of it, I find myself less willing to separate the word “chancel” from the idea of “chance”, while preferring to link it with the contrasting idea of “providence”.  For what may seem to be mere chance in the natural order is often part of divine providence.  So in the case of this church, whether the angle of its chancel is due to the chance of natural instinct or to the providence of the human builders, I neither know nor care.  The outcome may rather be seen as a charming combination of the two, with the instinct of nature chiming with the providence if not of men at least of God.



8.       The Spire and the Window

In the Isle of Man there is a village to the South of Douglas with the name of Onchan (pronounced “onkan”).  The village, which I have only visited once, boasts of two churches, one Anglican and the other Catholic.  It may have more, for all I know, but I wish to speak of these two which have particularly impressed me.


My reason for visiting Onchan, and in fact for visiting the Isle of Man, which is so far off the beaten track of modern tourism, was connected with my interest in the Victorian Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  In honour of the centenary of his death in 1889, I was taking a group of Japanese pilgrims, including members of the Japanese Hopkins Society, round the British Isles and going to as many places as might have some association with the poet.  So as he had spent a vacation on the Isle of Man, with particular mention in his diary of Onchan and its church, we made our way here after our arrival at Douglas the previous evening.


On our arrival, I was only thinking of the Anglican church, as being the only church mentioned by Hopkins in his diary.  But the church we first found wasn’t the older Anglican but a newer Catholic one.  Being a Catholic priest, I thought we might well go inside and say a prayer, before repairing to the Anglican church mentioned by Hopkins.  And here we came upon something quite unexpected and unique.


This was the window.  It wasn’t stained glass but ordinary glass carved and etched in an extraordinary manner.  The form carved and etched on the glass was that of Christ walking over the waves on the Sea of Galilee.  Or rather, it showed the form of Christ walking, but the waves over which he was walking had no need to be carved or etched.  They were the real waves of the Irish Sea beyond the window.  Yes, they were real!  And they somehow communicated something of their reality to the form of Christ, in such a way that one felt he, too, was really walking over those waves.


Since then I have often shown the slide I took of that window to my students back in Japan.  Usually I show them some eighty slides in one class, and I invite them to write their impressions, selecting whichever pictures they prefer.  But when this slide comes among the eighty I show, almost all the students make it their preferred choice.  They seem to regard it as hardly less of a miracle than the original event recorded in the Gospels.


Then, leaving the Catholic church, we made our way to the Anglican church a mere stone’s throw away.  Whereas the fascination of the former was within, looking through the window to the sea outside through the etched form of Christ, that of the latter was without, in its unique spire.  Usually in English churches spires rise from the top of towers.  First there is the church tower, or belfry, for hanging the bells high up so as to be heard far and wide.  But there came a moment in the history of architecture when the architect could no longer remain content with the tower, but from the tower as a new starting-point he wished to direct the lines of the tower and the minds of the people yet higher up to heaven.  So he devised the spire.


The spire of Onchan church, however, is no ordinary one.  Like other spires it points up to heaven, but unlike other spires it takes for its point of departure not the tower but the ground.  Or rather, one might say that the tower of this church is the spire all the way up.  Thus it is quite unique, and its uniqueness deserved a special mention in the diary of a poet who loved all things “original, counter, spare, strange”.


Such uniqueness, as with the other churches I have mentioned, tends to belong to the Middle Ages, before the Renaissance introduced the craze for Euclidian geometry into England.  So I assumed this must be a mediaeval church.  But then I looked at my guide-book and found it was built in the nineteenth century, and so it was still new when Hopkins came here.  At least, it looked mediaeval, and inside one came upon some charming stained-glass windows depicting scenes of the Christian history of the Isle of Man.  Only they weren’t as charming as the plain-glass window of the Catholic church.


Also in his diary Hopkins mentioned some old Celtic tombstones in the churchyard.  But though we looked for them everywhere, we couldn’t find them.  No doubt they had been removed for safety’s sake and kept in the artificial surroundings of the local museum.  What a pity!  Anyhow, of the village of Onchan I have to add, with admiration, “What a place!”


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