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 VII.  Comic Graves


25.       A Grave Figure-head

“Look for me tomorrow,” says the dying Mercutio to his grieving friend Romeo, “and you’ll find me a grave man.”  There can be few moments in a man’s life more serious than the moment of death.  So when it comes to dying, few of us feel like cracking a joke.  Yet such is the joke Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his comic character Mercutio.  In his life Mercutio has never been grave, but in death he must needs, whether he will or no, go down to the grave and become “a grave man”.  There in the grave he will at last have to be grave.


In England, it has to be admitted, the majority of graves and the epitaphs on them are serious.  But we English can’t be serious for long.  It goes against the grain, at least for most of us.  Even in the hour of death some of us can’t help coming out with a joke or two.  The most famous Englishman in this respect is surely Sir Thomas More, who went to his execution with not one but three jests on his lips.  On arriving at the scaffold, he asked the lieutenant of the Tower to help him up the steps, but, he added, “For my going down, I can manage well enough.”  Then, before putting his head on the block, he noticed that the executioner was trembling and told him, “Do your job properly, man. If you miss, it will be bad for your reputation.”  Lastly, on laying his head down, he put his beard out of the way of the axe, remarking, “At least my beard has committed no treason.”


More was indeed a man of jests, right up to the end!  During his life it was said of him that no one knew when he was jesting and when he was being serious.  For when he seemed to be serious, he was probably telling a joke, and when he seemed to be jesting, he often did so with a serious intent.  It wasn’t unlike him, therefore, to go down to the grave, like Mercutio, with a jest on his lips.  Perhaps Shakespeare had More in mind in his characterization of Mercutio – whose very name includes that of More.

In turning to graves in churchyards, we come upon not a few instances of English eccentricity.  In one churchyard I once visited at Morwenstow in Cornwall, among the customary graves there I noticed one that was quite unusual.  It was clearly a figure-head such as used to be attached to the bows of sailing ships in the old days.  What, I wondered, was this figure-head doing in the churchyard?  It wasn’t particularly religious.  It was rather pagan, a representation in plaster of the Greek hero Perseus, holding a sword in one hand and Gorgon’s head in the other.  Against the grassy green background, the white of the plaster figure stood out uncannily, like a ghost rising from the grave.


Fortunately, on this occasion I wasn’t left to my own untutored conjectures.  A friend of mine who belonged to the local parish informed me that the cliffs at Morwenstow were dangerous to passing ships.  On a stormy night, or in a fog, not a few ships on their way to and from the seaport of Bristol would be driven onto the rocks with the loss of many lives.  The bodies of the drowned sailors would be recovered from the sea and buried in a common grave in this churchyard.  Then what more appropriate, or inexpensive, monument would they have than this figure-head, pagan though it was.  At least, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins refers in one of his poems to Perseus as a symbol of Christ.


Once you hear the reason, you may well find it reasonable.  As the French say, “To know everything is to forgive everything.”  Few of us human beings know everything, and so most visitors to this churchyard at Morwenstow must find the figure-head over a grave distinctly odd and typically eccentric.  They may well incur the blessing of ignorance – as Pope says, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”


As for myself, I would prefer to have been blissfully unaware of the tragic shipwrecks that used to take place on the rocks off this treacherous coast.  I could be quite content to note the odd contrast between the surrounding tombstones and this figure-head standing out among them in white.  It is so deliciously eccentric, even comic.  Even when told of the preceding tragedy of shipwreck, I couldn’t help noting the comedy implicit in the grave.


 I am also reminded of the charming epitaph composed for such sailors by Robert Louis Stevenson under the title “Requiem”, “This be the verse you grave for me,/ Here he lies where he longed to be./ Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/ And the hunter home from the hill.”  The actual moment of death, especially in a shipwreck amid a violent storm, may be overwhelmingly serious, but in the outcome, even in the grave, there is a calm after the storm and a leisure that admits of comedy and laughter.


26.       An Acrostic Epitaph

An epitaph is what is written or engraved on a tombstone, often in the form, “Here lies (so and so).”  Often, too, it is composed in the form of verse, even many rhyming verses.  One witty way of composition is to take the first letters of each verse so that, when read downwards, they form the name of the deceased person.  Such a form of verse is called an acrostic.  Sometimes the same effect is produced from the last letter of each verse.  Then the epitaph becomes an exercise in ingenuity, and such ingenuity offers a special challenge to the eccentricity of Englishmen.


One notable example of such eccentricity I once encountered in a churchyard at Monmouth – though, as Monmouth is on the border between England and Wales, I can’t be sure if the eccentric composer of the epitaph was English or Welsh.  Only, I feel sure he was English, as the Welsh aren’t so eccentric – to the best of my knowledge.


Anyhow, the name of the deceased was John Renie, which sounds more French than either English or Welsh.  On his grave I read the seemingly simple epitaph, “Here lies John Renie.”  But it wasn’t so simple, the way it was repeated many times, each time in a different way.  It began, moreover, not as usual in the top left-hand corner, but, in defiance of all churchyard convention, right in the middle.


In other words, the only way of making sense out of the epitaph was to look for the initial H in the middle, since everything took its point of departure from there.  Thus I found I could read the simple epitaph in any direction, upwards, downwards, right or left, it didn’t matter.  I could even change direction, if the whim took me, and zigzag in my reading, so long as I began with the middle H and went on reading to E in any of the four corners.  It always came out the same, “HERE LIES JOHN RENIE”.


The explanation, when you come to think of it, is quite simple.  In this sentence there are 17 letters, or in mathematical terms, 8+8+1.  Thus, if you begin at H in the middle, you read the first 8 letters till you come to the 9th, which is J, and then you have to branch upwards or downwards to reach the last letter, which is E.  If you like, you can read upwards or downwards, or left or right, and you will still have to end up at one of the four corners, where you find E awaiting you.


It is such a simple, yet such an ingenious, epitaph, so replete with eccentricity and humour.  It makes me wonder what kind of man John Renie was.  How did he hit on such a device, which I haven’t seen anywhere else?  Or was it really he who hit on it?  Or was it a funny friend of his?  In either case, he must have been a real character, and for this alone he deserves to be admitted into the kingdom of heaven.


But now a problem occurs to my mind.  How can such an epitaph be called an acrostic?  For it consists of only one line, “Here lies John Renie.”  Strictly speaking, it can’t be called an acrostic.  But loosely speaking – which is what we English are doing all the time – the fact that it is a puzzle involving the reading of letters upwards and downwards, as well as sideways, makes it a kind of acrostic, even a unique acrostic.  Then, long as it is a kind of acrostic, I am content to use the term, especially as in this one case I know of no other term.


Now another problem occurs to my mind.  Take the case of Hamlet, who strays into such a churchyard and confronts two clowns digging a grave there.  They are actually joking and singing over their digging, which scandalizes the serious mind of the young prince.  “Has this fellow no feeling of his business,” he indignantly asks his friend Horatio, “that he sings at grave-making?”  Similarly, he might ask of John Renie, “Has this fellow no feeling of his place in the grave, that he puts such a comic epitaph over it?”


Needless to say, Hamlet was a Dane, and that may be why he had no sense of humour.  But the grave-diggers were obviously English, owing to their custom of singing while making graves.  And John Renie must also have been English, in view of the comic epitaph he put over his grave – in the spirit of Sir Thomas More.  I would also ask, What better place to give expression to one’s sense of humour than on a tomb in the churchyard?  After all, why should the fact of death make us so serious?  Even Paul asks, “Death, where is your sting?”  Rather, we ought to look from death to new life, and in view of that life we may well laugh at the prospect of death and the grave.  So I say, “Three cheers for John Renie!”



27.       The Church Cat

One of the more aimiable forms of English eccentricity is surely our love of animals.  In this respect we English have led the way for other nations to follow.  Not that we have always loved animals.  Up till only a century ago we shared with most other nations, including the Jewish authors of the Bible, a contempt for animals that is still enshrined in English idioms.  Indeed there is hardly one animal idiom in our language that has a kind thing to say about our four-footed cousins.


Shakespeare, it is true, shows a certain sympathy for animals, such as hares and horses and even snails.  Byron, too, goes so far as to call the dog, especially his own Newfoundland, “man’s best friend”.  But the love of animals, as we know it today, comes in with the popularity of children’s literature, which hardly goes back before Alice in Wonderland in the Victorian age.  After the Alice books we have Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh and the animals by the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.  These books have successively and successfully taught generations of English children to identify themselves with animals, especially their pets.  So once they have learnt this precious lesson in childhood, it remains with them more or less till the end of their lives.


This love of animals we tend to carry with us till death and the grave.  So when one or other of our pets dies, we naturally bury him or her – never “it” – in a grave at the bottom of our garden, though not usually in a churchyard.  We may even conduct a burial service for the poor animal, and even raise a monument with or without an epitaph, such as the splendid tomb Byron erected at Newstead Abbey in memory of his favourite dog named “Boatswain” (pronounced “bo’sn”).


All the same, I have come upon no fewer than two animal graves in churchyards.  One is simply dedicated to the memory of “The Church Cat”, who lived – after presumably having lost his other eight lives – to the ripe old age of 15.  He lies in the churchyard of the mediaeval church of St.Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, just opposite the church door.  When you walk to the church from the road, you can’t miss him.


What, you may wonder, was the cat doing in a church?  Well, I answer, what does a cat usually do, when he isn’t sleeping in front of a fire, or lapping up a saucer of milk?  Proverbially, he catches mice.  When there are many mice in or around a church, it is necessary to keep a cat there to catch them, and to protect the ladies from them.  One particular cat was, I imagine, so skilful in catching the mice that the ladies of the parish felt particularly grateful to him.  On his death they must have used their influence with the vicar to have him buried with due honour in the churchyard.  And the vicar, who had no doubt read the Alice books with Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh in his childhood, would have willingly consented to their reasonable request.


In fact, it seems so reasonable that one can hardly call it eccentric – so long as one remains in England.  Yet I have been to one churchyard after another in my native country without finding any other grave for a church cat.  So I have to admit the eccentricity of this grave, and of the vicar – whoever he was – who gave his consent for its installation.


When I show my students my slide of this church cat, they sometimes ask me, “What about dogs?  Are there no graves in England for pet dogs?”  I am sure there are hundreds of graves for dogs in England, but I suppose more of them are in back gardens than in churchyards.  I have only come across one grave for a dog in a churchyard, and that was not in England but in Scotland – which forces me to confess that even the Scots can be on occasion no less eccentric than the English.


 I am speaking of the grave of a dog named Bobbie, in the churchyard of Greyfriars in the city of Edinburgh.  He was no anonymous “church cat”, whose memory lies buried with him in his grave.  His name lives on in the well-known Edinburgh pub called “Greyfriars Bobby”, where one may see a charming bronze statue of him in front of the pub.  He is indeed the Hachiko of Scotland, like the famous Japanese dog, noted for loyalty to his owner.  He would accompany his master every day to the pub, and even after his master’s death he kept up the custom, till he himself died.  Now, where his master lies buried in a modest grave in the churchyard behind the pub, the dog is also buried, but under a much more splendid tombstone.  Nowadays, such is the British love of animals that no one is interested in the master, whose very name is forgotten, but everyone is charmed by this cute little highland terrier and the story of his fidelity.



28.       Dead as Donkeys

It may seem only natural for us to treat such domestic animals as cats and dogs like human beings and to bury them in graves when they die, even in churchyards.  We give them names and regard them as family members, and we speak to them as if they understand everything we tell them – as they probably do.  So when they die, what can we do for them, in testimony of our affection for them, but give them an honourable burial and a monument to posterity?


Now I ask, What about other animals that may belong to the farmyard but hardly to the family?  Do we come upon any graves for horses or sheep or cows anywhere in England?  Here and there I am sure they are to be found, especially for horses, but if so, I haven’t found them or taken pictures of them.  The only such animals whose graves I have seen are not horses, but donkeys – yes, even such stupid animals as donkeys.


In English tradition, as no doubt in world tradition, too, the donkey is notorious for his stupidity, as well as his obstinacy and his unfortunate habit of kicking people.  Yet for all his defects, he is such a charming animal, much more charming than the horse.  The horse may be a faithful, intelligent animal, and human beings are deeply indebted to him in times of peace no less than of war.  But he isn’t as charming as the donkey, in spite of his fidelity and intelligence.  For there is charm in the donkey’s stupidity, which somehow goes with that look of simplicity and meekness in his eyes.


In the pages of English literature I recall three charming passages about the donkey.  In his novel Tristram Shandy, the Yorkshireman Laurence Sterne speaks so affectionately of the donkey and his attempts at conversation with the animal.  In his account of Travels with a Donkey, the Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson shows such tender affection for his animal, named Modestine, in spite of the latter’s ingrained obstinacy.  In his poem “The Donkey”, the Londoner Gilbert Keith Chesterton finds in the animal such a source of inspiration that one feels he has even identified himself with him. 


But now I wish to speak not of those literary donkeys, as I am talking of graves.  And now I have to mention not just one grave, as in the cases of the Church Cat and Greyfriars Bobbie, but five graves, which I once came upon nestling together not in a churchyard but under a tree in the Isle of Wight.  As everyone knows, the Isle of Wight is located in the English Channel off the coast of Hampshire, and on that island is a famous castle named Carisbrooke Castle.  The one claim of this castle to historic fame is that it was for a time used for the prison of King Charles I, before he was summoned to London for his trial and execution under Oliver Cromwell.


There it was that, much to my surprise, I came upon these five graves at the foot of an acacia tree in a sleepy hollow just outside the castle.  They looked so picturesque, without any other graves in the vicinity.  I wondered why they were there, and I was told that the donkeys had been employed to turn the mill-stone inside the castle in place of a windmill or a water-mill.  It might be called “donkey-power”, instead of the customary “horse-power”, which we use of motor-cars.  Those poor donkeys, one after another, were harnessed to the mill-stone, and then they had to tread monotonously round and round, day after day, till they dropped dead.  Or perhaps they were treated more humanely and allowed to retire from old age before they died at the task.


Not that the donkeys were used together at the same time, but only one was needed at one time.  Or perhaps they took it in turns to perform the monotonous task.  Or when one proved recalcitrant, being a donkey, he may have had to be replaced by his fellow.  Anyhow, in the course of time, usually with a life-span similar to that of the church cat, one after another of the donkeys died and was given a grave, till the number of five was completed, and donkeys were no longer needed for that task.


I myself know of no other graves for donkeys anywhere else in England.  So I can’t help wondering about the historical circumstances in which the first of those donkeys to die was accorded a grave under that tree outside the castle.  I imagine it was thanks to some little girl living in the castle, maybe the miller’s daughter, who loved the donkeys.  Then, when they died one after another, she made sure they were properly buried with proper tomb-stones, giving their names and ages.  Thus the eccentricity of their graves is hers, and what a charming eccentricity it is!