(VIII) ECCENTRIC COUNTRY – ENGLAND

Peter Milward


Weblisher: BriFrancis, 2008

 

 CONTENTS

  

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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  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Simplicity of the West 

 by Peter Milward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 AAFX: History of Christians in Japan  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LINKS

Who is Peter Milward?

Genesis of an Octogenarian

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All About Francis Xavier

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 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

     Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 Arise My Love by William Johnston

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part VIII.  Unique Universities

 

 29.      Funny Faces

It is only to be expected that the two traditional universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, should be centres of eccentricity as well as learning.  For who is so ignorant as not to know that learning and eccentricity go together?  This is especially the case when the learning has deep roots in the Middle Ages, and especially when the university is Oxford with all her “dreaming spires”.

 

Wherever you go in Oxford, you are liable to bump into people with funny faces – such faces as proclaim to the world the hidden presence of eccentricity.  Some of the faces may be those of students, but not so many, as they haven’t yet had the time to develop any variety of eccentricity.  With them, therefore, oddness of feature is no more than skin-deep.  But the older and more learned a scholar becomes, the funnier his face appears, and the more eccentric is the mind behind the face.

 

This reminds me of the humorous remark Shakespeare puts into the mouth of the Earl of Kent in King Lear, when Kent in disguise is surrounded by his master’s enemies.  He professes to be a plain man, and so he plainly tells them, “I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me.”  What a bold statement for him to make among enemies!  And how ironical, too!  For his boldness he is, of course, punished, and he has to sit in the stocks all night for it.  But the punishment is more than compensated for by the oddity of his observation.

 

In general, one may say of Shakespeare’s plays that, with all their human variety, they are filled to overflowing with funny faces – and that is true not only of the comedies, but also of the tragedies.  “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” is the typical remark of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Here Puck is the mouthpiece of Shakespeare, and his remark applies to most of the characters in the plays, especially the men.  In the eyes of Shakespeare folly is more characteristic of the male than the female of the species.

 

But to return to Oxford, through which the dramatist must have frequently passed on his way between Stratford and London, there is one spot in which the essence of eccentricity is characteristically concentrated.  It is appropriately situated in the centre of the university, adjoining the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian Theatre. 

 

The theatre in particular, built in the late seventeenth century in the classical style by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, might seem to represent the essence rather of rationality and sensible balance, admitting of no oddity or eccentricity.  At least, so one might think.  But no!  If that were indeed so, the building would be out of place in this mediaeval university, but it isn’t out of place.  The stone, quarried in the nearby Cotswold Hills, like most of the other, older buildings, has of course weathered in the course of time, and so it has come to seem almost an extension of the nearby Bodleian Library, with all its Gothic pinnacles.  What is more, round the theatre, on the iron railings that mark its precincts, is set a semi-circle of funny faces in stone.

 

These funny faces strike me as so symbolic of Oxford University, with all its funny students and scholars.  In stone they are fixed in expressions of everlasting laughter at the human comedy going on all round them.  They stand for the fine fruit of a truly humanistic, which is also a truly humorous, education.  For, as the Wise Man aptly observes, the more one experiences all things under the sun, the deeper grows one’s conviction of the vanity of those things.  Nothing under the sun can be taken seriously, since the only serious things in life are above the sun.

 

This is so symbolic of universal truth.  Still one wonders if this was the original intention of the person who carved the faces.  The Sheldonian Theatre itself was, I understand, based by Wren on the model of the Theatre of Marcellus in ancient Rome, and the funny faces were meant to be the masks of actors in classical times, when the actors always wore masks.  Even so, I wonder, who are the persons represented by the masks?

 

To this question I have heard two answers, one Roman and the other Greek.  The former would see in these masks the faces of the old Roman emperors from Augustus Caesar onwards.  They were indeed a queer and eccentric assembly of characters, not unlike those surrounding Kent in King Lear.  The latter would prefer to find in them the older Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, who was famous among other things for his ugliness and his shrewish wife.  As for myself, however, I would propose a third answer, considering that the masks aren’t original but were renovated in the 1970s – after having altogether lost their original form.  I would identify them as the eccentric scholars of Oxford University, which happens to be my alma mater.

 

 

30.       Spikes for Students

“What a wonderful place is Oxford!  And what a wonderful thing it must be to study there!”  Such are the typical impressions of Japanese visitors to my old university when they go there on a fine day in summer.  They are so consumed with envy of their English counterparts.

 

But wait a moment!  Even in this paradise of learning, at whose centre one comes upon many a tree of knowledge, there lurks the hidden sting of a serpent.  What is this sting?  Well, once you raise your eyes not only to the charming old pinnacles on the roofs of the many mediaeval buildings but also to the walls of the colleges, what is it that meets your horrified gaze?  Rows of sharp iron spikes.

 

What on earth are those spikes doing on those walls?  They are hardly put there for mediaeval ornamentation.  They simply spoil the appearance of the walls and the colleges behind.  They serve rather to transform the appearance of this academic paradise into a prison.  From paradise to prison – such was the tragic fall of man, of which we read in the beginning of the Bible.

 

That is indeed so.  Yet there is surely a difference between a college and a prison.  The difference is implicit in the purpose of those spikes.  On a prison wall, such as that of the nearby county gaol, the spikes serve to keep in the prisoners and to prevent them from escaping into the outside world.  On a college wall, however, they serve an exactly opposite purpose – to prevent students from getting into the college late at night, when they would otherwise have to report their late arrival at the entrance lodge.

 

In other words, like all institutions of learning, Oxford colleges have their rules to be observed by the students.  Even in Eden there was a rule for Adam and Eve to obey, as the condition for remaining in paradise.  So among the rules for Oxford students there is one that obliges them to be back in college by a certain hour of the night.  If they are late, they have to report the matter at the entrance, and if they repeat their misdemeanour, they may be “sent down”, that is to say, expelled from the college.

 

It is for this reason that most students are unwilling to report their late arrival at the college entrance, so long as there is another way of getting in unobserved.  So they try to climb the high walls round the college, or get their friends with rooms overlooking the street outside to let down a rope for them to climb up.  Needless to say, the college authorities are not unaware of such student subterfuges, and they do their best to make it difficult for the students to evade the law.  That is why they attach spikes and barbed wire to the walls and fix iron bars and grates over the windows that give onto the street.  Thus without intending it, they give their college the look of a prison.

 

Such at least is the official explanation, and I have to admit it is a reasonable one.  Boys may be boys, but rules are rules.  All the same, as I have said, there is a limit to human reason, not least in terms of the earthly paradise.  It isn’t only that “boys will be boys” and even in Oxford students will be students, while the authorities insist that rules are rules and must be observed – unless we wish, as Shakespeare says, to “make a scarecrow of the law”.  It is also that, even for good students who keep the rules and return to the college by the appointed time every night, the place is itself a kind of prison.

 

For Japanese visitors, coming to Oxford during the summer vacation, and who may not notice the spikes on the college walls, the university seems to be nothing less than an earthly paradise, in contrast to university life back in Japan.  But even for conscientious students, who study day in day out and keep the rule for coming back to college at night, the university is anything but an earthly paradise.  Even without those spikes and bars and barbed wire, the place is a prison of the mind.  There they are confined for three or four years, till the happy day comes for their graduation, which is for them a liberation from prison.

 

This is all very grim, even tragic, for the poor students, among whom I once counted myself.  Still, as I say, one has to look at it from a distance.  Then everything – or almost everything – in human life is transformed into “the human comedy”.  And then one can repeat the words of the seventeenth-century poet, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.”  Or as Hamlet says in a similar context, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  For Hamlet, as a former university student, Denmark may be a prison, but for another it may even be a paradise.

 

 

31.       Pig with Wings

In connection with Oxford I have said many things about Shakespeare and quoted from many of his plays.  Yet Shakespeare was never a student at Oxford.  He merely passed through the university town on his way to London or to Stratford.  So he must have regarded the university from afar as a paradise of learning, the learning of which he had been sadly deprived.  Anyhow, I feel the deep connection between the dramatist and the university, both of them belonging as they do to the West of England with its traditions reaching back into the Middle Ages.

 

Now, however, let me turn to the other, Eastern university of Cambridge, where we come upon the great rival of Shakespeare, the poet of Paradise Lost, John Milton.  Unlike his Western counterpart, Milton was a scholar as well as a poet.  He spent many years of his life at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he became known, from his feminine appearance, as “the lady of Christ’s”.  Unlike Shakespeare, too, Milton was a Puritan and a revolutionary.  As such, he came out on the side of Parliament against King Charles I in the civil war or Puritan rebellion that broke out in 1642.

 

As a Puritan, Milton was a stern idealist, who would have nothing to do with ceremonial trappings whether of Church or State.  Again, unlike Shakespeare, he had little sense of humour, except when he had occasion to pour ridicule on his enemies and to relegate them to what he calls in Paradise Lost a “paradise of fools”.

 

This is why I find it more than a little ironical to see on one side of the portal to Christ’s College a strange animal figure.  This is the heraldic animal known as a “wyvern”, with the body and wings of a dragon, the claws of an eagle, and the pointed tail of a serpent.  Recently, it has been repainted with a red body and a green background, to make him look like the dragon of Wales, maybe owing to the Welsh origin of the Tudors, under whose auspices the college was founded.  To my mind, however, it looks for all the world like a pig with wings.

 

This reminds me of the famous question, “Can pigs fly?” or “Can pigs grow wings?”  It is answered by the proverb, “Pigs may fly, but they are unlikely birds.”  To the creative imagination, of course, all things are possible, and so even pigs can grow wings and fly.  But then they are no longer the ordinary pigs to whom we are accustomed on earth, but merely monsters of the mind.  Just such a monster it is that adorns the gatehouse to Milton’s college.  I wonder what he thought of it.  Sadly, I know of no record that he ever thought of it – perhaps because it wasn’t painted in such a gaudy red and green as it is today.

 

All the same, I can’t help seeing in it a certain symbolism.  First, it may well be symbolic of Wales, and Wales is the land of King Arthur, and it was about King Arthur that Milton originally thought of writing his epic as an Arthuriad, before he decided on Paradise Lost.  Now Arthur’s father was named Uther Pendragon, or the dragon-king of Britain, and as lawful successor to his father’s throne he alone could pull the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it was embedded.  Thus began the tale of Arthur, to which Milton planned to devote his poetic talent for the glory of Britain.  Only at the last moment he switched from Arthur to Adam, and from Britain to mankind in general.

 

Now what, I wonder, was the reason for this change of plan in Milton’s mind?  Different scholars have proposed different reasons, all of them serious and all of them reasonable.  But I would now like to propose another reason, which may seem to be less serious, but which I regard as all the more reasonable.  It is to be found precisely in this animal at the entrance to Milton’s college.  It may look like a wyvern, or perhaps the dragon of Wales, but to me it looks more like a pig with wings, and about a pig with wings there is something vaguely ridiculous.

 

Not that I wish to pour ridicule on pigs.  I am very fond of pigs.  They are such charming animals, even when they are old and fat and female.  They are also earthy animals, especially when wallowing in their pig-sty.  Obviously they will have nothing to do with wings, and obviously they have no idea of flying up to heaven.  That isn’t their idea of heaven at all!

 

Anyhow, whenever the young Milton passed under the portals of his college, day after day, and night after night, I can well understand how this strange animal may have preyed on his poetic mind.  Though he had long been contemplating an epic on Arthur’s Britain, how could he have seriously done so when he saw the symbol of Britain as a pig with wings?  It must have struck him as inconceivable.  So he turned from the humour of Britain to the more serious subject of Paradise, and so he composed Paradise Lost.

 

 

32.       Fire!

For an English university, Cambridge strikes me as less mediaeval, less humanistic, and less eccentric than Oxford.  It came into its own with the rise of Puritanism in the sixteenth and of science in the seventeenth century.  So it is inevitably more rationalistic and more revolutionary that its counterpart in the West.  All the same, it may claim its fair share of eccentrics, among whom are to be numbered the Puritan poet John Milton and the scientist Sir Isaac Newton.

 

Now let me turn from Christ’s College, symbolized by the pig with wings, to the older college of Peterhouse.  Here, without entering the college and before coming as far as the gatehouse, one may notice an iron bar projecting from one of the upper windows.  Thereby, as we say, hangs a tale.

 

This tale has nothing to do with late-comers seeking entrance into the college by unlawful means.  The bar is definitely an iron bar, but it couldn’t conceivably repel a determined student from entering the college late at night or in the early hours of the morning.  That couldn’t have been its purpose.  It must have been put there, with official approval, by the occupant of the room for some other, lawful purpose.  And so it was.

 

The occupant of this room in the mid-eighteenth century was another famous poet, not perhaps as famous as John Milton, but still famous in his own way.  I mean Thomas Gray, poet of the renowned “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”.  It may even be said that what Paradise Lost was to the seventeenth century, Gray’s Elegy was to the eighteenth century.  Both poems may be taken as representative of their respective periods.  One might even say that what begins with the loss of paradise with the fall of man ends in a lament over the graves of the dead in a country churchyard.  As Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.”

 

The feeling of melancholy that pervades the solemn stanzas of Gray’s Elegy may be felt pervading the whole of England during the eighteenth century on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.  It also came to pervade the life of Gray himself, who remained a solitary scholar to the end of his life and was buried beside his mother in the country churchyard of Stoke Poges not far from London.  In particular, it may be seen symbolized in this iron bar projecting from beneath the window-sill of his room in Peterhouse.

 

Among his other symptoms of melancholy, Gray had a special fear of fire.  It was quite an obsession with him.  One never knew when a fire might break out in those days, and as his room was on the third floor (or second by English reckoning) it might have been dangerous for him, in case of a fire, to jump out of the window.  So after arranging with the college authorities to have an iron bar fixed under the window-sill of his room, he kept a length of rope within, so that if a fire broke out, he could tie one end of the rope to the bar and climb down to safety.

 

Such were the precautions taken by this fearful poet against the danger of fire.  Only, he was so obsessed with this one danger that he overlooked another kind of danger, that arising from mischievous students on April Fools’ Day.  As I have said in another context, “boys will be boys”, and students will be students, not only in returning late to the college and climbing its walls, but also in tormenting their teachers as opportunity offers.  So in this iron bar the students of Peterhouse saw their opportunity of teasing the melancholy poet of the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”.

 

Accordingly, some students gathered one dark night outside the poet’s room and cried, “Fire! Fire!”  In the ears of the sleeping poet their cry must have sounded like a proclamation of the end of the world and the consummation of all things in fire.  Immediately he leapt out of bed and, without checking on the existence of a fire, he took his rope, attached it to the iron bar and, clad as he was in his night gown, he climbed down to what he thought was safety.

 

There was, however, no sign of a fire.  The poet had been deceived.  It was all the fault of those wicked students!  So instead of returning to his college of Peterhouse, pestered as he was there by such ill-behaved students, he took refuge in the nearby college of Pembroke.  So his iron bar has remained unused till the present day, except for the instruction and entertainment of passers-by–once they are enlightened concerning the significance of the bar.

 

 

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