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 VI.  Queer Carvings


21.       Jacob’s Ladder

In the Book of Genesis we read how Jacob, son of Isaac, went on a certain journey to a certain place.  “And there he tarried all night, because the sun was set.  And he took of the stones of that place and made them a pillow, and he lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed.  And behold, there was a ladder set on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.  And he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”


What a wonderful dream he had!  And what a wonderful place it was!  Afterwards he called its name Bethel, or House of God.  In later ages it became a holy sanctuary, one of the centres of the religion of Israel, before the temple was built by Solomon in Jerusalem.  And in the subsequent ages of Christianity it became a common theme of devotional art.


All the same, however common it has become, I have come upon an uncommon form of this theme in the ancient city of Bath.  This city goes back to Roman times, when the Romans were drawn to its reputation for healing waters.  Even today the remains of the old Roman bath are to be seen there.  But when the Romans left Britain, the city fell into ruin, only to rise again in the Middle Ages.  Next to the Roman bath there arose an abbey church, which is unique, as my guide-book informs me, in being “the last of the great English pre-Reformation churches”.


The church as a whole is surely superb, especially with its wealth of fan tracery high up in the roof.  But that isn’t what makes it so unique.  There is so much fan tracery to be seen in English churches of that period, namely the early years of the sixteenth century before the so-called "reformation”  (really deformation) of the Church under Henry VIII.  What is (in my opinion) unique is the elaborate sculpture on the West façade depicting Jacob’s ladder.  This occupies the whole wall to the right of the entrance, and looking at it one is amazed at a vision of the angels of God ascending and descending on the sleeping form of Jacob.


What is even more unique about this sculpture is the interpretation it seems to indicate concerning Jacob’s dream.  I had assumed that the angels seen by Jacob in his dream were good angels.  So while some were going up to God at the top of the ladder, others were coming down to Jacob at the foot.  It was, I always considered, a two-way traffic, with the angels as messengers, from man to God and from God to man.  In this sculpture, however, the angels going up were climbing the ladder with their feet, though with their wings they might well have flown.  As for the other angels, they were not so much coming down as falling down, in spite of their wings.  So it looked as if the former were good angels going up to heaven, while the latter were bad angels in the moment of falling not just to earth but to hell.  It was for me a novel but interesting interpretation.


What with the date of the church’s completion, and the fan tracery supporting its roof inside, and this sculpture of Jacob’s ladder on the outside, not to mention the location of the whole next to the Roman bath, I deeply felt the uniqueness of Bath Abbey.  But that wasn’t all.  It seemed to have cast the spell of its uniqueness over the whole city as well.


For Bath is unique among English cities for the harmony of its buildings, which are almost all constructed with the same stone from the nearby Cotswold Hills, in the same classical style of architecture, at more or less the same height.  The Roman bath may look like a prehistoric ruin and Bath Abbey an odd survival from the late Middle Ages.  Otherwise the city of Bath as a whole basks in the more recent memory of the eighteenth century.  Then it really came to life, as never before, as a centre of courtly fashion, scarcely second in season to the West End of London.


Just behind Bath Abbey, and surrounded by all these memories of the eighteenth century, one comes upon an oasis of greenery, the Parade Gardens.  The last time I went there, I found I qualified for half-price as an OAP, or “Old Age Pensioner”, though I hadn’t asked for the privilege.  “Do I really look so old?” I asked the lady at the entrance.  “Yes?” was her unflattering but generous answer.


The Gardens were no less unique than everything else in this city.  There was a Punch-and-Judy Show, just as I remembered it from my childhood.  Then, a little further on, there was a shrubbery cut into the various figures of Paddington Bear and characters from Sesame Street.  Beyond, flowing past the limits of the Gardens was the river Avon, one of so many rivers of that name in England, with a view of the Pulteney Bridge, a covered bridge with little shops on either side.  Along the river came gaily coloured barges with brass bands providing brassy entertainment.

  Then, too, in the Gardens the paths were lined with bright beds of flowers, and along the paths one might well imagine the pedestrians as the angels who had come down Jacob’s ladder to mingle with the sons of men.



22.       Mediaeval Sumo

Near the lovely village of Thurgarton, along the river Trent several miles East of Nottingham, one comes upon the old mediaeval church of Thurgarton Priory.  Inside the church there are old mediaeval choir stalls in front of the altar, and one of the seats, as I raised it, came free in my hands.  Beneath the seat I found a funny old wood carving, and to examine it more carefully I took it out of the church and laid it on the grass of the churchyard.


It was the kind of seat known from mediaeval times as a “misericord”, from the Latin for mercy, misericordia.  When the monks of old sang the divine praises in their monasteries, they must have got so tired, standing up and singing the psalms for such a long time, especially at midnight, when the body craves for sleep.  In order to stand in their places, they had to raise the seat in their stall.  Beneath the seat a kindly carpenter made another, smaller seat, so that, when the main seat was raised, the monk could lean back and sit even while standing.  Thus it came to be called a mercy seat, or “misericord”.


Nor was the kind carpenter content with this work of mercy for the sleepy monk.  If he had any talent for wood carving, he added something out of his imagination beneath the little seat.  Considering that his carving would be beneath the seat beneath, he thought it unnecessary to be religious or even serious in his choice of a subject.  Thus it comes about that these misericords afford us precious glimpses of ordinary life in mediaeval England, and not infrequently the glimpses are humorous, even grotesque.


The carving beneath this particular seat, as I could see it more clearly in the sunshine outside, wasn’t so much ordinary as extraordinary, yet not so much grotesque as familiar.  It showed two naked men wrestling with each other within a narrow space, while grasping the belt round the other’s waist.  In a word, they looked as if they were engaged in the peculiar Japanese sport of sumo.


But was there any such sport as sumo in mediaeval England?  Surely, I thought, sumo was peculiar to Japan.  Yet wrestling is a universal pastime, and there must be almost as many varieties of sumo as there are countries and cultures in the world.  In addition to the professional wrestling we know nowadays, there must have been many kinds of amateur wrestling.  And it would be surprising if among them all there was none that remotely resembled Japanese sumo.


Later on, I drew readers’ attention to this fact with the photo I had taken of the misericord in an issue of the Japan Times.  At least one reader, who seemed to be a specialist in the history of wrestling, contributed the information that the carving was similar to old Viking wrestling.  That, I thought, was very probable, seeing Thurgarton was in that part of England, formerly known as the Danelaw, which had come under Danish or Viking rule.  The Vikings in their raids on the East coast of England would sail up rivers like the Trent, and though at first their expeditions were mostly destructive, they later came to settle in various places.  So they would have introduced their manner of wrestling, such as that recorded in this unusual misericord.


After I had examined the seat and taken a picture of it lying on the grass, I duly and honestly restored it to its place among the stalls inside.  At the same time, I couldn’t help reflecting how easy it would have been for me to take it back to our coach, as a priceless relic of the Middle Ages.  How long, I wondered, would it have been before someone, maybe the Anglican vicar, found that one of the misericords was missing?  And how much longer would it have been for the suspicion to fall on the party of visiting Japanese, and on myself in particular?  Sooner or later I would have been found out.  And so, I concluded, honesty was the best policy.


All the same, I now wonder if the misericord is still there today.  I brought my group of Japanese there in the summer of 1970, and I haven’t been back since then.  So it might well have disappeared, taken away perhaps with due authorization by a local antiquarian for the local museum – where it would be so much less interesting than in its proper setting in the old priory church.


Anyhow, it is pleasant to think that in mediaeval England people were wrestling with each other in much the same way as in modern Japan.  As Walt Disney says, “It’s a small world!”



23.       An Indian Boy

Walking through mediaeval England, especially in such an old city as York, it is necessary to keep your eyes and your mind open to everything – or almost everything.  Mediaeval England is a land of surprises.  This is the basic distinction between mediaeval and modern.  Everything modern is so uniform, so mass-produced, and so inhuman, whereas everything mediaeval is so human, so individual, and so surprising.


More than any other city in England, York survives as a museum of the Middle Ages.  The whole city is a museum, especially along streets that have been liberated from the noisy traffic, and therefore enjoy the appellation of “pedestrian paradise”.  Such a street is Stonegate, which leads Southwards and downwards from the cathedral or “Minster” to the river Ouse.  Its very name is eccentric, meaning not what we usually mean by “gate” but “way”, as in the North dialect idiom, “Go thy gate”, for “Go your way”.  (In York what we mean by “gate” is called a “bar”.)


Then just a stone’s throw from Stonegate, one comes upon a strange sculpture or wood carving on the wall of a certain house.  It represents, to my eyes, an Indian boy clad in an Indian costume.  Though he is a boy, he is wearing a wide skirt and a high feathered head-dress.  He is, no doubt, a little prince of his Indian tribe, or he may even be its young chieftain.  At least, he looks quite young, and handsome, too, by Indian standards.


What, I wonder, was he doing there, high up on a wall in this very English city of York?  I’m sure he wasn’t mediaeval, as the people of York had no traffic with India in mediaeval times.  I suspect the figure goes back to the early seventeenth century, which is recent by York standards.  Then English ships were sailing round the coast of Africa to India and the Indies, and the English sailors sometimes brought back real live Indians with them, or at least wood carvings of Indians.


Such was, no doubt, this carving obtained by a rich merchant of York in the seventeenth century.  Then, instead of keeping it all to himself in one of his rooms at home, he hit upon the idea of exhibiting it on the whitewashed wall of his house for everyone to see.  He was a real benefactor!  At the same time, he was benefiting himself by showing everyone what a universal man he was.  “I am a man,” he might have proclaimed, echoing the Renaissance motto of the Roman Terentius, “and nothing human is of no concern to me.”


“What funny people,” I can imagine passers-by commenting on passing beneath this wood carving, “there are in distant lands, and what funny clothes they wear!  Are they really like that?”  After making such comments, they may have gone inside the house to meet the owner and ask him how he came by such a strange decoration.  No doubt he welcomed such questions, providing him as they did with a welcome opportunity to show off his wide experience of men and cities in various lands.


Then one may imagine the way he might have answered such inquiries.  “You may think those people with their clothes are funny.  But think also how they regard us.  If they are so funny in our eyes, we may be no less funny in their eyes.  We take it for granted that what we know here in York is the norm of human life, while everything that is different is abnormal.  We may think that men must wear breeches, and women skirts, or that men must wear hats, leaving women free to wear feathered head-dresses.  But for the Indians it may be the opposite.  So they teach us, without saying anything, the need of being broad-minded.”


Now, however, let me state my disagreement with that broad-minded merchant of York.  In his eyes nothing is really funny, so long as you get accustomed to it.  Just as he takes the white (or pink) skin of the English, with their dull caps and clothes, for granted, so he imagines that he may also come to take the dark skin of the Indians, with their flamboyant skirts and head-dresses, for granted, if he lived long enough among them.  For him all is a matter of time and custom.


But I disagree with him.  I don’t think we ought to take anything for granted, not even ourselves or the clothes we wear.  I think we ought to see everything and everyone as funny, especially ourselves.  I think we ought to see even this old merchant of York, whom I take to be a Puritan, as funny, and perhaps more than a little stupid.  And as such I take him for a typical Englishman.  After all, why would he have placed this carving of the Indian boy on the white wall of his house, if he hadn’t been more than a little eccentric?


Anyhow, he reminds me of the saying in the Catholic Bible, which is excluded from the Protestant Bible, that “Of stupid people the number is infinite.”  He is surely one of those people – and I, even without being a Puritan, am another!



24.       A Strange Saint

There is a strange church in the village of Tong in Shropshire.  Among other reasons, it is strange for the wealth of tombs within, many of them dating back to the age of Shakespeare.  In fact, the epitaph on one of the tombs is attributed to Shakespeare.  I have seen it with my own eyes, and I feel disposed to accept the attribution – for various reasons which I needn’t go into here.


It is also strange for one of the tombs in the churchyard outside, namely the tomb of Little Nell in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop.  That shop is still to be seen – or was still to be seen when I last went there – in the heart of London.  But how the heroine, Little Nell, managed to get to Tong in Shropshire, I don’t know – nor have I really cared to investigate.  I merely saw it there after having examined the tomb inside the church with its Shakespearian epitaph.


Thirdly, after having examined the tomb of Little Nell and recorded it with my camera, I looked up at the church, and there I saw a strange sculpture on the wall.  Really, it seems that we English have a craze for placing strange sculptures on walls for everyone to see and admire.  There was, first, Jacob’s Ladder at Bath, then the Indian Boy at York, and now this – what?


This sculpture, however, wasn’t mediaeval, as at Bath, or seventeenth-century, as at York, but modern.  And being modern, it wasn’t so much quaint, or funny, as grotesque, in the style of Henry Moore.  For all I know, it may even have been the handiwork of Moore himself, or of Jacob Epstein.  It was a male figure in white stone, maybe of Christ, or of the patron saint of this church, with one thick hand raised in blessing and the other holding a model of the church.


As I say, I found it grotesque.  Still, I admit, different people may have different opinions about it.  Some may find it weird rather than grotesque, or original rather than weird, or primitive rather than original.  Some people may like it for these or other reasons, while others may dislike it for the same reasons.  With the passing of time, it may even come to seem traditional.  Only, I fail to see how any generation could regard it as beautiful.


Anyhow, there is one description of the statue on which everyone will surely agree.  That is, it is plainly eccentric, and so, whether by Moore or Epstein or some other sculptor, it is evidently the work of an Englishman.  Not only is it eccentric in itself, as compared with other statues.  It is also, and even more, eccentric in its location on the outside wall of this old mediaeval church.  There it mutely proclaims to all the world the contrast between mediaeval and modern – or I almost said, between civilized and primitive.


Now let me ask two questions about this sculpture, even though the sculptor himself is, alas, not available to answer them.  First, let me take the right hand upraised in blessing.  The gesture in itself is normal in a statue, especially of Christ.  But why does the hand have to be so thick, as if the person depicted is suffering from an outlandish disease?   Is it because the hand has been upheld for a long time, like the hand of Moses in the battle of Israel against Amalek, that it has become so thick for very weariness?  Or is it because of the abundance of the blessings proceeding from the hand to the outside world?  Or are those blessings perchance prevented from issuing from the hand by reason of the wickedness of the world?


Secondly, what is the model of the church supposed to be doing in the other hand?  It is normal enough for the patron saint of a church to be represented holding a model of his or her church.  There isn’t anything strange about that.  But about this statue everything is strange.  Just as the hand upheld in blessing is unnaturally thick, so this other hand holding the model of the church is unnaturally thick at the wrist.  Perhaps it is because he needs such a thick wrist to hold up such a heavy weight, which only gets heavier with the passing of time.


Anyhow, this thickness in either hand of the statue seems to point to the head, which is also unnaturally thick.  One might even say, both of the statue and its sculptor, that they are thick-headed.  That is only as it should be, considering how noted the English are for obstinacy, or thick-headedness, no less than for eccentricity.  So in this work of art I find a deep symbolism not so much of anything sacred, whether of Christ or the Church, as of the English character.

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